A 23-year-old child molester dug up an 81-year-old womans grave and set her body on fire to fake his own death. It worked. The medical examiner mistook the charred body for that of the child molester.
A woman imprisoned for killing her child was released after other medical examiners studied the case and agreed the baby had been stillborn.
Another woman accused of fatal child abuse spent years on death row before the medical examiner who testified against her recanted, admitting the death might have been accidental.
The Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported these and other cases in a series exploring the reliability (or lack thereof) of forensic medicine.
The definitive identification of charred remains usually requires DNA or dental comparison, but if an autopsy was done, its hard to understand why the body of an elderly woman was mistaken for that of a young man. Even with charring, the internal organs (uterus, ovaries, prostate gland) are still there.
The distinction between stillborn and live born can be impossible, and forensic pathologists have very different levels of certainty about the distinction between accidental and inflicted injuries, so Im not surprised when experts disagree about cases like these only by the dogmatism with which they state their conflicting opinions.
The Star-Telegram suggests inadequate professional requirements are to blame for errors and disputed opinions. Texas medical examiners are doctors, but theyre not required to train in forensic pathology, they dont have to pass a test and there are no performance standards. The piece quotes an unnamed source as saying, Thats akin to having your family doctor do brain surgery.
It would be nice if only ill-trained medical examiners made mistakes and recanted opinions and if board-certified forensic pathologists always agreed, but they dont.
At a recent meeting of the National Association of Medical Examiners, a colleagues presentation described a woman found dead at her home with hemorrhages in her eyes (petechiae) and a broken bone (the hyoid) in her neck findings typically interpreted as indicative of strangulation. The lack of neck bruises was unusual, but still ...
The womans doctor told the medical examiner his patient was bulimic (she forced herself to vomit to lose weight) and that the eye hemorrhages already were there three days before she died.
Searching the literature, my colleague found one convincing case of a bulimic man who suffered the same fracture and hemorrhages as a result of forceful vomiting.
He told me hed never heard of such a thing (I hadnt, either) but was convinced the woman wasnt strangled and thought colleagues should hear about the case.
Some meeting attendees (almost all forensic pathologists) said he was nuts. The woman was strangled. One said that even if the oddball explanation were correct, he shouldnt publish the case lest defense attorneys hear about it and challenge strangulation testimony in future murder trials.
Might such a challenge be successful? How rare a thing can sustain reasonable doubt? Is one literature report enough? Two?
Darned if I know.
firstname.lastname@example.org Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, has served as La Plata County coroner since January 2003.