Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Add autopsies to list of frequently shoddy forensics

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram yesterday launched a series on shoddy forensics in Texas autopsies with a story titled "With little oversight in Texas, autopsies often careless." Here's a tasty excerpt:.
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:

Autopsies required
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):
UPDATE: Find old Startlegram stories here.


Scott D said...

When I was a police detective, I attended a number of autopsies performed by one of the pathologists cited in the story. I remember being struck by how haphazard it seemed. We'd attend the autopsy to make sure we got pictures because they wouldn't even take photos. If we were pretty sure it was going to be a natural causes death then it would get sent to this pathologist because it was cheaper for the taxpayers.

When we had important autopsies to be performed (murders) we tried to get the JP to send it to a different pathologist even though it cost the county more. The JP's understood and would normally listen to us.

Pretty sad isn't it.

Anonymous said...

Decades of TV shows like CSI and if you're old enough to remember Quincy, have left the general public with the perception that coroners are highly trained professionals who have the resources and inclination to do the most thorough job on each and every corpse technology allows. The reality is that in some jurisdictions, the coroner can be a barely trained doctor or mortuary worker who is paid little by the county and supplied with basic training and none of the pretty, expensive machines we see on TV. In at least one instance I have seen, one also hopes that he is sober enough to not make more of a mess of a body than it arrived in and manage to properly tag tissue samples.

And yet, the findings of the coroner are taken as “truth” in a court of law by juries who take what they see on TV as reality. I believe we should up the numbers of possibly innocent from your poll yet again.

Ryan Paige said...

Having grown up in the Panhandle, I was so proud when our M.E., Dr. Ralph Erdmann appeared on 60 Minutes.

sunray's wench said...

This could potentially have as big an impact as the DNA evidence cases currently being reviewed.

gravyrug said...

I've complained before of CSI trend on TV making us too trusting of forensics, but it could turn into a benefit. If people start expecting the same high standards they see on television from their local examiners, we might start seeing the science forced to get better. One can hope, anyway.

Of course, that assumes the science on TV is portrayed accurately, which is not always the case.

Mr. Anxiety said...

Slipshod? Slapdash? Who's writing for the Star Telegram, Abe Simpson?

"My car gets 40 rods to the hogshead and that's the way I likes it"

Medical Assistant Job Search said...

I never expected for an autopsy to be one of the aspects of police work that would be taken lightly. The human body is very fragile, and it is very important to pay close attention to the body's condition after the death. Highly important cases like murder, as stated in the blog article, could be the key to the freedom of a true murderer or the imprisonment of an innocent suspect.

Lucy Frost said...

I was so very glad to see this series of articles. My niece was wrongly convicted of capital murder in Nueces County, in part due to a hurried, incomplete autopsy (www.freehannah.com). I was horrified to learn that ME's have no peer review, little to no regulation, and there is no place to turn when you think one has done a poor job. Now we await the decision of the 13th court of appeals in what's known as "the 2nd worse judicial hell-hole" in the country by the civil attorneys' association. God bless Texas, and God bless America, and may we someday pull our heads out of our collective you-know-whats and reform our justice system. I'll march for a moratorium on the death penalty on Sat because of what I've learned through Hannah's case.

Anonymous said...

Per my 19 y/o son's autopsy:
"Tardieu spots on the anterior surfaces of the thighs."
"Red-purple parenchyma with pulmonary edema."
No abnormal fluids in any body cavity. No damage to the neck's soft tissues. No carotid/jugular occlusion. No airway obstruction, only bruising from the chain.
The ME told me there was no evidence of strangulation. He also told me he had initially ruled Undetermined until receiving a report from former the former detective. Per report:
'Joshua was a drug user.' (Toxicology negative for drugs/alcohol.)
'Joshua and mother fought the previous night.' (We argued, which is normal)
'App suicide by chain vs neck.' (NOTHING is apparent at a death scene.) There was no investigation!
No etiological specific disease/injury to attribute to the death, such as "Asphyxia by Strangulation."
Questions for PD:
1) How and why run a wants and warrants check on an 'unknown' subject with no identification?
2) How is it possible for former Officer Kirby to have been the first officer on scene, as his patrol car (#1507) was not dispathed to Amsler Park?
3) Why was former Sgt. Freeman called on duty @ 4:37AM?
4) Why wasn't this death invetigated as a homicide until proven otherwise?
Former Chief Wadkins reply to Question #1: "It's not like the officers have drivers license numbers in their heads. A wants and warrants check is done in case there's a warrant, it can be dismissed." I said, "Who cares, he's dead!"
Chief Foster/Former Texas Ranger, whom I requested an investigation into my son's suspicious death: "The wants and warrants check was not done on Joshua Robinson, it was done on the complainant, Mr. Thornton."
But then, Foster also told me that Joshua was going to be arrested for Statutory Rape, because he was having sex with a 12 y/o and she was pregnant when he died. I told him that he needed to review the case file, as the girlfriend was almost 16 and NOT pregnant!
I have contacted every local/state/federal agency in an attempt to get justice, to no avail.
Everyone's advice is to retain an attorney, but that's easier said than done. I have contacted between 50-65 attorneys, who tell me I have a 'meritorious' case, but unwilling to get involved.
www.americaiswatching.org (Joshua Robinson) Attached documents within the story, click on the underlined phrases.