Medical Examiners’ Mistakes at Center of Lawsuit, P. 2

in Homicide, on

We are talking about medical examiners in North Carolina. The medical examiner is the first step in a death investigation, really. As we said in our last post, it is the medical examiner who officially designates a death a suicide or a homicide, a natural or an accidental death or “undetermined.” That designation alone can have myriad implications.

In 2001, a Raleigh News & Observer investigation of the records of state medical examiners resulted in some disturbing findings. According to the paper, state medical examiners did not correctly classify at least five homicides in five years. The paper also found that potentially hundreds of investigations were put at risk because medical examiners missed evidence or made an error in their work. Finally, the paper discovered that medical examiners did not perform autopsies in thousands of cases they designated as suicides or deaths by fire and drowning.

As we said in our last post, North Carolina did away with the post of coroner, in part because coroners were not required to have any medical expertise. The way the medical examiner law was written, some medical expertise is required, but that doesn’t mean that all medical examiners are doctors.

The law currently requires that the state’s chief medical examiner be a forensic pathologist. The chief medical examiner appoints county medical examiners to three-year terms, working off a list of licensed physicians that the county medical society submits. A county can have more than one medical examiner, and a medical examiner can serve more than one county.

This is not a full-time job. Rather, medical examiners are paid $100 for each case. With the responsibility the office carries, it may be no wonder that not every appointment is accepted. It seems, in fact, that the chief medical examiner has run down the entire list of eligible physicians in a county without getting a single “yes.”

Then what? We’ll discuss that in our next post.

Source: News & Observer, “Suit challenges NC medical examiner’s work,” Fred Clasen-Kelly, April 27, 2013