Experts: Careless work of Texas medical examiners costly

Fort Worth Star-TelegramSeptember 27, 2009 

The man almost took the dirty secret of his death to his grave. The Tarrant County medical examiner's office said injuries from a pickup wreck killed him. But after a funeral director hundreds of miles away found a bullet in the man’s head, authorities realized a killer was on the loose.

Worse has happened in the autopsy suites of Texas medical examiners.

A child molester faked his own death and almost got away with it after the Travis County medical examiner mistook the burned body of an 81-year-old woman for the 23-year-old man.

A woman was on her way to Death Row in Alabama after a medical examiner now working in Texas said she had suffocated her newborn. The sad truth, other experts said, was that the baby was stillborn.

An Austin baby sitter has spent years on Death Row for a baby’s murder. The medical examiner whose testimony helped put her there now says the baby’s death may have been an accident.

The medical examiner is the doctor-detective who is supposed to extract truth from the hodgepodge of details about a death. By examining body tissues, organs and fluids, gathering data from a crime scene and examining lab results, the medical examiner provides insight into how and why someone has died. Those judgments are of consequence for violent or suspicious deaths, as well as for unexplained deaths and those that might result from negligence or improper care.

County officials say the state's system works well by unraveling questions surrounding death at a reasonable cost to taxpayers. In the courtroom, much of the work, they say, stands up to scrutiny.

But over the years, Texas medical examiners have misidentified bodies, botched examinations and had to do a double take on cases of individuals later exonerated by law enforcement. That has opened the door for innocent men and women to go to prison and killers to go free. The slapdash work of some medical examiners could also allow public health threats, wrongful deaths and preventable medical errors to go undetected, experts warn.

"The work of the medical examiner's office is just so slipshod," said Tommy Turner, the former special prosecutor who put a Lubbock medical examiner behind bars for falsifying autopsies.

Critics say the medical examiner's office is "the last bastion of junk science." The problems, they say, are similar to those that plagued the state’s crime labs for years: lack of performance standards, poor documentation, a shortage of qualified personnel and lax oversight.

"The state does not keep track of MEs in any shape, form or fashion," Bexar County Chief Medical Examiner Randall Frost said. The state doesn't even know how many certified forensic pathologists work in government offices, he added.

And a medical examiner doesn't have to be trained in forensics or pass a specialty exam to do an autopsy. All that’s required is a state medical license. That’s akin to having your family doctor do brain surgery, says a growing chorus of medical examiners.


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