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.
Some of these problems are a function of state law, said the Startlegram understatedly: "One significant weakness: Texas law doesn’t require medical examiners to take notes, produce body diagrams or photograph evidence." Reporter Yamil Berard has compiled numerous examples of medical examiners failing to do any of those things and subsequently making errors and botching cases, often egregiously. Travis County's long-time, now-retired medical examiner, Robert Bayardo, told the Startlegram he "never took notes because he feared they would be subpoenaed." That's just unfathomable to me. The purpose of the examination is to generate information for court. But Bayardo apparently considered himself on the prosecution's team and thus feared the other side might obtain information that would help them. Un-friggin-believable.
Read the whole article for a long list of autopsy-error horror stories, beginning with the opening lines.
A sidebar to the story describes when autopsies are required in Texas:
In Texas, inquests by medical examiners are required when:
■ A person dies within 24 hours of admission to a hospital or institution.
■ A person dies in prison or jail.
■ A person is killed or dies an unnatural death.
■ A person dies in the absence of one or more good witnesses.
■ A body part or body of a person is found and the cause or circumstances of death are unknown.
■ The circumstances of the death are suspicious.
■ A person commits suicide or is suspected of having done so.
■ A person dies without having been attended by a physician and the cause of death is unknown.
■ A child younger than 6 dies and the death is reported under state law dealing with child welfare services.
■ The attending physician is not certain about the cause of death.
MORE: Here are the followup stories in the series (last updated 9/30):