Everyone who missed the NPR/PBS Frontline/ProPublica documentary about death investigation that aired Feb. 1 should go online and watch it.
The program wove snippets from interviews with several highly regarded and nationally known medical examiners with segments about death investigation snafus from around the country.
b A young woman having a severe asthma attack was placed on her back in five-point restraints by police in spite of her pleas that she couldnt breathe. When she died, which was practically a given, the coroner, whose bias in favor of law enforcement is legendary, ordered an autopsy done by a forensic pathologist with a history of similar biases, who interpreted therapeutic needle punctures as evidence of drug abuse. Despite finding no drugs in her system, the coroner certified her death as a drug abuse-related accident. Only after a second autopsy and a lawsuit initiated by the womans family did he change the cause of death to astma (sic).
b A decomposed body was found in a swamp in a small county in South Carolina. The coroner, who had no local forensic pathologist, had the body transported 100 miles for an autopsy and then cremated because he had no cold storage and no money for burial. Later, the body was identified as that of basketball great Michael Jordans father. Negative publicity arising from the case resulted in a change to the South Carolina coroners law. Henceforth, South Carolina coroners must have a high school diploma.
b A forensic pathologist, Dr. Thomas Gill, was portrayed as a pathologist who had been arrested for drunken driving on the way to work, who made crazy determinations in some of his cases and who continued to do forensic autopsies in California and elsewhere after having been found incompetent by the California State Bar. Inappropriate coaching of Gills testimony by a district attorney led to the bars incompetency finding and in a suspension for the district attorney.
I dont know Gill, but several colleagues who have worked with him say he is a good and honest man and a competent forensic pathologist who has worked hard to overcome his addiction. They say he deserves support and sympathy, not a hatchet job presented with a sensationalist slant by advocacy media.
Even if Gill was a poor choice of villain, these media organizations did a public service in bringing the problems in the field of death investigation to the attention of a wider audience, and they were right to portray that serious problems exist in medical examiner as well as in coroner systems across the country.
The National Academy of Sciences issued a report last year that was highly critical of the forensic sciences and that recommended oversight at the federal level. That, too, was a public service.
Im not generally a fan of bigger government, but practitioners of the forensic sciences (including forensic pathologists) have done far too little to fix serious and pervasive problems.
I hope somebody at the federal level steps up.
email@example.com. Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, has served as La Plata County coroner since January 2003.