Friday, February 04, 2011

Medical Examiners In America: A Dysfunctional System

In detective novels and television crime dramas like "CSI," the nation's morgues are staffed by highly trained medical professionals equipped with the most sophisticated tools of 21st-century science. Operating at the nexus of medicine and criminal justice, these death detectives thoroughly investigate each and every suspicious fatality.

The reality, though, is far different. In a joint reporting effort, ProPublica, PBS "Frontline" and NPR spent a year looking at the nation's 2,300 coroner and medical examiner offices and found a deeply dysfunctional system that quite literally buries its mistakes.

Blunders by doctors in America's morgues have put innocent people in prison cells, allowed the guilty to go free, and left some cases so muddled that prosecutors could do nothing.

In Mississippi, a physician's errors in two autopsies helped convict a pair of innocent men, sending them to prison for more than a decade.

The Massachusetts medical examiner's office has cremated a corpse before police could determine if the person had been murdered; misplaced bones; and lost track of at least five bodies.

Late last year, a doctor in a suburb of Detroit autopsied the body of a bank executive pulled from a lake -- and managed to miss the bullet hole in his neck and the bullet lodged in his jaw.

"I thought it was a superficial autopsy," said Dr. David Balash, a forensic science consultant and former Michigan state trooper hired by the Macomb County Sheriff's Department to evaluate the case. "You see a lot of these kinds of things, unfortunately."

More than 1 in 5 physicians working in the country's busiest morgues -- including the chief medical examiner of Washington, D.C. -- are not board certified in forensic pathology, the branch of medicine focused on the mechanics of death, our investigation found. Experts say such certification ensures that doctors have at least a basic understanding of the science, and it should be required for practitioners employed by coroner and medical examiner offices.

Yet, because of an extreme shortage of forensic pathologists -- the country has fewer than half the specialists it needs, a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded -- even physicians who flunk their board exams find jobs in the field. Uncertified doctors who have failed the exam are employed by county offices in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and California, officials in those states acknowledged. Two of the six doctors in Arkansas' state medical examiner's office have failed the test, according to the agency's top doctor.

In many places, the person tasked with making the official ruling on how people die isn't a doctor at all. In nearly 1,600 counties across the country, elected or appointed coroners who may have no qualifications beyond a high-school degree have the final say on whether fatalities are homicides, suicides, accidents or the result of natural or undetermined causes.

For 26 years, Tim Brown, a construction manager, has served as the coroner of rural Marlboro County in South Carolina, a $14,000-per-year part-time post. "It's been kind of on-the-job training, assisted by the sheriffs," he said.

Long before the current economic crisis began shrinking state and county government budgets, many coroner and medical examiner offices suffered from underfunding and neglect. Because of financial constraints, Massachusetts has slashed the number of autopsies it performs by almost one quarter since 2006. Oklahoma has gone further still, declining to autopsy apparent suicides and most people age 40 and over who die without an obvious cause.

Some death investigation units do a commendable job. While many coroners and medical examiners don't even have X-ray machines, New Mexico has a new facility equipped with a full-body CT scanner to help detect hidden injuries. Virginia has an efficient, thorough system, staffed by more than a dozen highly trained doctors. The autopsy suite in its Richmond headquarters is as sophisticated and sanitary as a top hospital.

Still, the National Academy of Sciences' study found far-reaching and acute problems. Across the country, the academy said, coroners and medical examiner offices are struggling with inadequate resources, poor scientific training and substandard facilities and technology.

Their limitations can have devastating consequences.

"You call a death an accident or miss a homicide altogether, a murderer goes free," said Dr. Marcella Fierro, Virginia's former chief medical examiner and one of the report's authors. "Lots of very bad things happen if death investigation isn't carried out competently."

A Series Of Errors And Oversights

After Cayne Miceli died in January 2009, her body was brought to the New Orleans morgue, a dingy, makeshift facility in a converted funeral home, for Dr. Paul McGarry to autopsy.

An autopsy, the dissection and evaluation of a corpse, generally begins with a physician scrutinizing the body, noting visible injuries. With a scalpel, a doctor then slices a long, Y-shaped incision in the torso and studies the innards, removing and weighing each organ, and using a small rotary saw to remove the top the skull. An autopsy can trace the path of a bullet through a body, or reveal microscopic damage to blood vessels in the brain, or identify a lethal clog in an artery.

By the time Miceli's body was laid on the stainless-steel examination table, McGarry had performed such work for three decades in Louisiana and Mississippi. In New Orleans, he was one of several forensic pathologists overseen by the parish coroner, Frank Minyard, a trumpet-playing local legend who has held his elected office for more than 35 years.

Miceli, 43, had died after being held in a cell in the parish jail, bound to a metal bed by five-point leather restraints. During the autopsy, McGarry observed "multiple fresh and recent injection sites" on Miceli's forearms. He determined that drugs -- he didn't specify the variety -- had killed her, according to his report.

But doctors who had treated Miceli the day she died encouraged her father, Mike Miceli, to look more closely into his daughter's death. He had her body flown to Montgomery, Ala., for a second autopsy by Dr. James Lauridson, the retired chief medical examiner for the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences.

Lauridson concluded that McGarry had misconstrued the needle marks on Miceli's arms. "In fact, all of the needle puncture marks were therapeutic -- drawing blood, IV's, that sort of thing," Lauridson said.

McGarry's finding also was contradicted by a central piece of evidence: a screen for drugs and alcohol didn't turn up either in Miceli's blood. McGarry had reached his conclusion days before he got the test results, records show.

Lauridson soon pinpointed the real reason for Miceli's demise. On the day of her death, Miceli had gone to the hospital to be treated for an asthma attack. She was arrested after an altercation with hospital staffers; Miceli thought they were trying to discharge her too soon, court records show. Peering at Miceli's lung tissue under a microscope, Lauridson was certain that severe asthma, combined with the way she was restrained at the jail, had caused her death.

"As I examined her lungs, it was very clear right away that her lungs and all of the airways were completely filled with mucous," he said. "To put an asthmatic flat and then tie them down during an acute asthma attack is nearly the same as giving them a death sentence."

McGarry had been wrong, and not for the first time. In fact, a review of medical records, court documents and legal transcripts shows McGarry has made errors and oversights in autopsy after autopsy.

In three instances since 2005, his findings in cases in which people died in the custody of police officers have been challenged by doctors brought in to perform second autopsies. In each case, McGarry's findings cleared officers of wrongdoing. The other specialists concluded the deaths were homicides.

Contacted by phone, mail and in person, McGarry repeatedly declined to comment for this article or related radio and television stories.

Much more here

(And don't forget your ration of Wicked Thoughts for today. Now hosted on Wordpress. If you cannot access it, go to the MIRROR SITE, where posts appear as well as on the primary site. I have reposted the archives (past posts) for Wicked Thoughts HERE or HERE or here

No comments: