Imagine being the brother of a woman who died with two friends in a fiery crash. The news itself is devastating. Arranging to have your sister’s remains shipped to your home state is gut-wrenching. The body arrives at the funeral home, where you are asked to view the remains. You take a deep breath and look down.
It is not your sister. North Carolina authorities have sent the wrong body, because the medical examiner did not independently verify the victim’s identity before sending the body “home.” The death was not suspicious, was apparently not a homicide, so neither an autopsy nor any identification tests were necessary.
Sadly, this is a true story. The family is now suing the state for its part in the mistake. The state was able to find the woman’s body before the funeral home cremated the remains, believing it was the body of another victim of the crash.
The case is just one instance of a mistake made by a medical examiner that has led various officials and the media to scrutinize the state’s death investigation system. Among the issues considered is why there is no mandatory training for medical examiners.
And, as we said in our last post, medical examiners need not be physicians. If there are no doctors willing or able to take on the responsibilities, the chief medical examiner can appoint a physician from another county or, if need be, a non-physician medical practitioner. The county medical examiner could be a licensed physician’s assistant, a nurse or a paramedic. In those cases, however, the medical examiner cannot conduct autopsies — which means that, really, someone still has to round up a physician to conduct an autopsy if one is called for.
The upshot is that a county can end up with a medical examiner who is not a doctor and who has received a manual but no special training on how to be a medical examiner. Forensic pathologists review medical examiners’ reports, but they cannot go back in time and examine the body at the crime scene.
The system has its flaws, critics say, and it may be time for an overhaul.
We’ll finish this up in our next post.
Source: News & Observer, “Suit challenges NC medical examiner’s work,” Fred Clasen-Kelly, April 27, 2013