In the court of law, Jan Leestma, MD, speaks for the dead.
A pioneer in forensic neuropathology, Leestma has served numerous times as an expert witness and testified in several high-profile cases, including the 2007 murder trial of music producer Phil Spector.
“I enjoy figuring out stuff,” says Leestma, who began working as a courtroom retained expert witness in the ‘70s in addition to his day job as a neuropathologist. In 1988, he published one of the first textbooks in the field, Forensic Neuropathology (third edition now in press.) “I don’t advocate for any one side—just the truth and the facts.”
Hired by Spector’s defense team, Leestma didn’t believe the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee pulled the trigger and killed the aspiring actress found dead in his L.A. mansion in 2003. In the doctor’s expert opinion, the victim’s gunshot wound to the mouth didn’t leave any damning evidence. “It appeared to me that she did it,” he says. “Not to be grisly, but if Spector had shot her at close range, he would have been covered in blood splatter—and he was not.” The jurors weren’t entirely convinced either with Spector’s guilt; this first of two trials ended in a hung jury.
From medicine to management
Leestma was a tenured medical school faculty member at Northwestern when he completed Kellogg’s Executive MBA Program in 1986. The degree left the longtime academic physician with a new worldview. Says Leestma, “It opened up possibilities for me to exercise my management muscles.”
After a brief administrative stint at the University of Chicago, Leestma helped launch an innovative hospital-within-a-hospital concept: the Chicago Institute of Neurosurgery and Neuroresearch. The clinical enterprise grew from just three neurosurgeons to become one of the largest neurosurgical practices in the Midwest.
Another kind of trial
In 1994, Leestma became CEO of Neurotherapeutics Management Co., a research offshoot of the institute. Five years later, he co-founded biotechnology company Nyxis Neurotherapeutics, Inc., which focused on novel compounds for treating dementia, depression and other neurological conditions. That venture evolved into Naurex Inc., an Evanston-based neuropharmaceutical firm with two drugs currently in early-stage human clinical trials. In 2011, the completion of an $18 million financing deal led by Adams Street Partners and Latterell Venture Partners gave Naurex a major investment boost.
Subsequent substantial investments have funded several ongoing human clinical trials for Naurex’s antidepressant drugs.
Though he’s no longer involved with Naurex management, Leestma continues as an investor and remains committed to providing his expert opinion through his consulting company, Brainworks, LLC.
“Everyone is entitled to not only a defense but also a good one—and it better be based on solid scientific evidence,” says Leestma. “There’s an important role for someone like me to be a part of the legal process and see that it works.”