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.
This is unbelievable.
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.
Of course this isn’t just an American issue. Ontario and later Saskatoon have had their own bad pathologists.
As criticism mounted against Smith, Ontario’s chief coroner called for a review of 45 child autopsies where the once renowned pathologist had determined the cause of death was murder or criminally suspicious. In 2007, the outside experts concluded Smith had made major errors in 20 of those cases — 13 of which had resulted in criminal convictions.
That was followed by the damning inquiry report from Justice Stephen Goudge that skewered Smith as incompetent, arrogant and unqualified. Five wrongful convictions based on his evidence have now been overturned, with many more pending appeal.
Although the issue in Ontario and Saskatoon seems to be one of oversight, not a lack of funding.