Medical Examiners Lack Qualifications, Competence, Oversight
by Matt Clarke
Most people will only have direct contact with a medical examiner, also known as a forensic pathologist, after they are dead. Thus, medical examiners have a certain mystic quality and are perceived as both doctors and sleuths who use scientifically-proven forensics techniques to reconstruct crimes, determine causes of death and identify the guilty. The reality, though, is almost exactly the opposite.
In fact, critics of Texas medical examiners say they are “the last bastion of junk science.” Such criticisms are bolstered due to a lack of accreditation and performance standards, a shortage of qualified personnel, excessive workloads, lax oversight and a profit motive among some medical examiners which, taken together, have brought their reliability and competence into question.
Lack of Qualifications and Oversight
There is no requirement for medical examiners in Texas to be trained in forensic science or to pass a specialty exam. Consequently, any doctor fresh out of medical school, with no training or experience in forensics or pathology, can become an examiner. Worse, medical examiners traditionally have had little oversight.
Until fairly recently the Texas Medical Board did not discipline medical examiners because it did not consider the performance of an autopsy to be the practice of medicine, as there was no potential to harm a patient. Complaints against Delbert Van Dusen, an unlicensed physician at the Harris County medical examiner’s office, led to the Board’s first case of disciplinary action against an examiner in 2000. By then he had performed dozens of autopsies.
Most Texas medical examiners are county employees, and county officials rely on the judicial system to expose problems with the medical examiner’s office. The fact that few problems have been reported proves the quality of the system, according to local authorities.
“We’ve not had district attorneys coming and saying, ‘We’re losing [criminal cases] because we’re not getting quality autopsy work,’” said Donald Lee, executive director of the Texas Conference of Urban Counties. “If there was a widespread problem with the autopsy process, you would think that DAs would be coming to their fellow county officials and raising the alarm.”
But there are flaws in Lee’s argument. First, it assumes that deficiencies in medical examiners’ offices result in difficult prosecutions. In fact, when errors are made they usually benefit the prosecution; rarely do defense attorneys hire expensive private experts to check the county medical examiner’s work. Another problem may be that medical examiners improperly favor prosecutors rather than being neutral, which is unlikely to elicit complaints from district attorneys. Further, some Texas officials do admit to problems with forensic pathologists – just not their own.
“I’ve heard horror stories from other counties about medical examiners,” stated Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes. “But I have not been made aware of any major problems [in Tarrant County], just a few little items, but I don’t think they are of any magnitude.”
According to Tommy Turner, a former special prosecutor who won a conviction against a Lubbock County medical examiner for falsifying autopsies, there is another flaw in Lee’s theory. “First of all, the person that you’re performing work on is dead,” Turner noted.
“They’re not going to complain.” Nor are the grieving family members of autopsy subjects, who wouldn’t know whether the person who examined their loved one was a licensed physician or performed the proper tests. Thus, many mistakes may go unnoticed and unreported.
“The work of the medical examiner’s office is just so slipshod,” said Turner. How slipshod? Consider the case of a 23-year-old male sex offender who faked his own death using the body of an 81-year-old woman who had died a year earlier. He dug up the body and burned it in his car, leaving his identification nearby. The Travis County medical examiner’s office identified the body as that of the man and even noted a penis and urine in the bladder on the autopsy report, both of which were impossible. The response by Dr. Vladimir Parungao, who conducted the autopsy? “I should have been more careful,” he said. “I let my guard down.”
Further, when the Tarrant County medical examiner’s office returned the body of a man found in a wrecked pickup truck to his wife for burial, the cause of death was reported as accidental – until the funeral director found a bullet lodged in the man’s face.
Some of the most controversial autopsy rulings have been in cases involving infant deaths. For example, Cathy Lynn Henderson is currently sitting on Texas’ death row after Travis County medical examiner Roberto Bayardo testified the child she was babysitting had been fatally beaten, and that it was “impossible” for the injuries to have resulted from an accident.
Dr. Bayardo changed his opinion in May 2007, citing “a greater understanding of pediatric head trauma and the extent of the injuries that can occur in infants” since he testified at Henderson’s trial in 1995. Bayardo said he now “cannot determine with a reasonable degree of medical certainty whether [the child’s] injuries resulted from an intentional act or an accidental fall.” Regardless, Henderson remains on death row.
Tarrant and Harris Counties have had similar cases where infant deaths initially were ruled homicides, followed by the prosecution and conviction of a suspect, then the medical examiner has changed the cause of death and left the defendants to fight their convictions.
In one case, Tarrant County chief medical examiner Nizam Peerwani, asked to review a cause of death that was initially undetermined, reported that an infant had died due to intentional head trauma. This was despite the fact that the baby’s brain had been misplaced after the autopsy and he therefore could not inspect it. He said he had relied on slides of brain samples; however, the slides could not be found and capital murder charges against the baby’s parents were dropped.
In another case, Cynthia Cash, a former nurse, was convicted of fatal injury to a child after an autopsy determined she had shaken a 4-month-old baby to death. The 1998 autopsy was a key piece of evidence against her, yet a revised autopsy report issued years later changed the cause of death to undetermined and found no evidence of trauma. Despite the new autopsy report, her appeal was rejected.
Peggy Simon, Justice of the Peace for Burnet County, has caught many errors made by the Travis County medical examiner’s office over the years. The Justice of the Peace (JP) is an elected position with no qualifications or requirements, not even literacy. In counties without a medical examiner, a JP determines whether an autopsy – which may cost thousands of dollars – is necessary. The JP also decides the type of autopsy needed.
Burnet County is too small to maintain its own medical examiner’s office, and therefore pays Travis County to perform autopsies. That is the practice with many Texas counties.
According to the National Association of Medical Examiners, a forensic pathologist with no administrative duties should perform a maximum of 250 autopsies a year. When the workload exceeds that amount, even a skilled medical examiner’s work quality will decline – corners will be cut and mistakes will be made. When the number of autopsies exceeds 350 per year, a pathologist’s errors can become obvious.
Nueces County, Texas medical examiner Ray Fernandez said he wanted to stay within the 350 autopsy limit, but his caseload forced him to do more. He performed 387 autopsies in 2008.
“Justice becomes secondary when too many bodies come into the morgue every day and when too few people are doing the autopsy,” observed Galveston County chief medical examiner Stephen Pustilnik.
Travis County performs “private” autopsies for 45 nearby counties. In 2005, two Travis County forensic pathologists conducted over 1,000 autopsies. Why did the county allow its already-overworked medical examiners to take on private autopsies for other jurisdictions? Money.
Autopsies are expensive, and pathologists can charge up to $2,000 for private autopsies. The county takes a cut, which generates revenue, and the medical examiners earn extra cash, supplementing their public-official wages. This profit motive may drive forensic pathologists to conduct more autopsies than they can competently handle.
Former Travis County chief medical examiner Roberto Bayardo generated millions of dollars in revenue by expanding autopsy services to other counties. He said this allowed him to purchase better equipment and offer services that would not have been possible under the county’s meager budget.
An audit revealed that nearly 81% of the Travis County medical examiner’s $2 million budget in 2005 came from private autopsies conducted for other counties. Dr. Bayardo, who kept $300 for each private autopsy he performed, retired in 2006 while under fire for handling too many cases.
Further, saving scarce tax dollars may motivate small counties to seek out the cheapest, not necessarily the best, autopsies. “It’s a marketplace,” said Texas Conference of Urban Counties director Donald Lee. “If you don’t like the price you are getting from one [medical examiner], go to the next one.”
Operating within that marketplace is Dr. Tommy J. Brown, who heads the Southeast Texas Forensic Center (STFC), a private company that conducts autopsies and forensics services at the Jefferson County morgue. In exchange for the use of its morgue, Jefferson County gets 200 free autopsies a year. STFC makes money by performing private autopsies for other counties and third parties.
In 2009, Montgomery County alone paid $1,500 for each of 315 autopsies conducted by STFC. Dr. Brown also operates a gift and novelty shop at the morgue and has other forensics centers in Conroe, Tyler and Odessa, though the Conroe location closed in mid-2010 because it was “no longer economically desirable.”
Tarrant County chief medical examiner Nizam Peerwani has disputed whether the National Association of Medical Examiners’ recommended limit for the number of autopsies performed annually is valid, claiming that a pathologist can conduct 450 autopsies a year if the staff and resources are available.
Peerwani’s office, with four pathologists, performed 1,029 full autopsies, 305 partial autopsies, 747 external examinations and 532 private autopsies in 2008. He has been criticized for using unlicensed physicians and taking shortcuts such as not visiting the crime scene – especially in regard to private autopsies, when deaths occur in other counties some distance away.
Further, Tarrant County has been secretive about how much Dr. Peerwani is paid. The county initially resisted a request by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to review his contract, claiming he was a private contractor. When the newspaper mounted a successful challenge, it discovered that Peerwani’s professional association was paid $936,368 for Tarrant County’s medical examiner services. The association also received $152,389 for services for other counties within the medical examiner’s district, plus $578,739 for private autopsies performed for counties outside the district. There was no breakdown as to the salaries paid to Peerwani and his three deputy medical examiners.
Dr. Peerwani’s private autopsy business, Anatomic and Forensic Pathology, also received payments from non-county customers. For example, it received around $34,000 from the Federal Medical Center prison in Carswell.
“The incentive is to run as many bodies through your morgue operation as possible,” said Galveston County medical examiner Stephen Pustilnik. “The more you can do, the more money you can make.”
However, it is problematic when there is an emphasis on the number of profit-generating autopsies, which potentially sacrifices quality for quantity.
This is perhaps best illustrated by former Mississippi medical examiner Steven Hayne, who performed a majority of autopsies for the state from the 1980s until 2008. According to Reason magazine, Hayne conducted 1,500 to 1,700 autopsies a year. Hayne and his sidekick, dentist Michael West, who performed questionable forensics “bite-mark comparison,” were mentioned in PLN’s October 2010 cover story (“Crime Labs in Crisis: Shoddy Forensics Used to Secure Convictions”).
Hayne, who has been accused of botching autopsies and giving questionable testimony, was barred from doing autopsies for the state in August 2008 and resigned from the National Association of Medical Examiners in 2009, though he still testifies in cases related to autopsies he performed previously. He faces lawsuits filed by at least two people who were convicted based on his testimony and later exonerated.
Medical examiners are human and thus are subject to the same human foibles and frailties as everyone else. Consequently, there have been a number of cases in which examiners have been subjected to discipline or charged with criminal conduct.
One of the medical examiners who works for the Southeast Texas Forensic Center, Delbert Van Dusen, was disciplined in 2000 by the Texas Medical Board for conducting autopsies in Harris County without a Texas medical license. He received a public reprimand, a $1,000 fine and was ordered to complete 100 hours of community service.
Dusen’s boss, Joye M. Carter, then the chief medical examiner for Harris County, was fined $1,000 for failing to ensure that Dusen was properly licensed.
Dr. Carter also was criticized for a questionable autopsy report related to the 1998 death of Melissa Trotter. She determined that Trotter had been dead for at least 25 days when her body was found in the Sam Houston National Forest. Based on that timeline, an ex-con, Larry Ray Swearingen, was convicted of killing Trotter and sentenced to death. But Swearingen could not have committed the crime if the murder had occurred earlier than 25 days, as he was in jail for traffic violations at that time.
Other pathologists said Trotter had been dead for no more than two weeks because her body weighed just 4 pounds less than when she was alive, and due to decomposition it would have been lighter had she been dead for 25 days. A former medical examiner who reviewed Carter’s autopsy report described it as “sloppy,” “irresponsible” and “misleading.”
Following this criticism, Dr. Carter admitted in a 2007 affidavit that her original findings were incorrect and Trotter could not have been dead for more than two weeks at the time her body was found. Carter said she had insufficient evidence during the initial autopsy.
Despite the revised autopsy report, prosecutors maintain that Swearingen is still guilty. On February 10, 2010, the Texas Court of Criminal Appeals denied Swearingen’s request for additional DNA testing, citing other “overwhelming” evidence of his guilt. He remains on death row awaiting execution.
Another forensic pathologist, Dr. Patricia Moore, was a former associate medical examiner for Harris County and subsequently worked for the Southeast Texas Forensic Center. In 2004 county officials reviewed “problematic autopsies” she had conducted, including autopsies in criminal cases that were later contested or revised. While Dr. Moore worked for Harris County prior to her resignation in July 2002, her supervisor reprimanded her for showing bias in favor of prosecutors and for “not understanding the objectives of neutral medical-legal investigation.” She also was cited for “defective and improper work” by the chief medical examiner. At least four of Moore’s autopsy reports were later revised, all involving infant deaths.
Former Hamilton County, Ohio pathologist Paul Shrode was fired in May 2010 from his position as chief medical examiner for El Paso County, Texas, a week after the Ohio parole board voted to recommend clemency for death row prisoner Richard Nields, who had been convicted based in part on Dr. Shrode’s testimony. Nields was subsequently granted clemency and his sentence commuted to life without parole.
Dr. Shrode testified that Nields had assaulted his girlfriend, left, then returned to choke her to death, which made the murder premeditated. Shrode’s supervisor later stated that those findings were not “scientifically supported.” Also, while employed as the chief medical examiner for El Paso County, Shrode had falsely claimed that he had a “graduate law degree” when in fact he had no such degree.
Theresa Caballero, a defense attorney in El Paso, Texas, said medical examiners’ disciplinary and misconduct records are fair game. “It’s always good for a defense attorney to cross-examine a medical examiner who has been discredited by his own profession,” she noted.
Outside of Texas, in May 2005 the Board of Medical Examiners of the Tennessee Department of Health found Dr. Charles Harlan, a former state medical examiner, guilty of 18 charges that included unprofessional conduct; dishonorable conduct; making false statements or representations; fraud or deceit; malpractice; negligence; incompetence; making or signing in one’s professional capacity any certificate that is known to be false at the time one makes or signs such certificate; violation or attempted violation, directly or indirectly, or assisting in or abetting the violation of or conspiring to violate any criminal statute of the State of Tennessee; and engaging in a pattern of continued or repeated negligence and incompetence.
Several incidents were cited where Dr. Harlan had incorrectly determined the cause of death. In one such case, an autopsy report by Harlan almost sent James Suttle, 49, to prison for first-degree murder. Suttle said that his cousin, Stevie Hobbs, had suffered a seizure and fell on a glass table, which proved fatal. Harlan countered that the death was not an accident and Hobbs had been stabbed. However, another forensics expert, Bill Bass, demonstrated that it would have been impossible for a stab wound to occur the way that Harlan described.
“I looked at the autopsy and what [Dr. Harlan] says in the autopsy happened could not happen, could not have happened,” Bass stated. “Physically it cannot be done,” he added. “I’m 100 percent, not 99 and 44/100ths percent, I’m 100 percent sure.” Suttle was acquitted at trial.
In another case, Dr. Harlan misidentified the body of escaped prisoner Bruce Allan Littleton – who was found alive two years later. He also misidentified the bodies of several prisoners who burned to death in a prison transport van. [See: PLN, Nov. 1997, p.1]. He was further accused of letting his pet dog roam around the autopsy room, and the dog reportedly snacked on human remains. Harlan testified in one case that rigor mortis could last more than 36 hours; his expert testimony sent several prisoners to death row.
Dr. Harlan’s license was permanently revoked and he was assessed $8,000 in penalties after being found guilty of misconduct by the Board of Medical Examiners. He challenged the Board’s decision in court, but his petition was dismissed and costs were assessed against him in March 2008. Prisoners are still challenging their convictions based on his testimony in their criminal cases.
Harlan was replaced as Tennessee’s state medical examiner by Dr. Bruce Levy; however, Levy was arrested in Mississippi on March 16, 2010 on marijuana possession charges. Tennessee canceled its contract with Dr. Levy the day after his arrest, and the Mississippi Dept. of Public Safety likewise ended its contract with his company, Global Forensics. Levy was granted pretrial diversion on the drug charges but was charged with official misconduct by Tennessee prosecutors in November 2010.
The Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners allowed Levy to retain his medical license, though he received five years’ probation and a $1,000 fine plus costs, and must attend a program for doctors with substance abuse problems. See: In the Matter of Bruce Levy, M.D., Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners, Case No. 2010020201.
A lawsuit has been filed against Dr. Levy’s Tennessee company, Forensic Medical, Inc., arguing that a prisoner’s death was improperly determined to be natural. The family of Andron Reed, 18, filed suit in November 2010 after Reed died at the Rutherford County jail. The complaint claims that Forensic Medical engaged in “deceitful and untrue statements and dishonorable professional conduct” when investigating Reed’s August 15, 2009 death.
Reed was involved in a violent altercation with jail deputies; he was pepper sprayed, placed in a restraint chair, and handcuffed and shackled. A “spit hood” was put over his head and he died soon afterwards. His family contends he was also beaten by guards. Forensic Medical decided his death was due to natural causes related to a birth defect involving his heart.
Another former Tennessee medical examiner, Dr. Ronald Toolsie, was indicted on drug charges on October 28, 2009; he was accused of defrauding a company to obtain and distribute prescription drugs, including tranquilizers, diet pills and pain medication.
Toolsie’s medical license had been suspended earlier in 2009 following an unrelated investigation into unprofessional or unethical conduct related to the autopsy of a 14-month-old girl. He determined the child had been sexually assaulted and died after being shaken. Two other pathologists found that neither was true and the girl had drowned. Dr. Toolsie had worked as the medical examiner for Bradley County and for Southeastern Pathology Associates in Chattanooga.
In California, Kelly A. Arthur, a Sonoma County medical examiner, was arrested in January 2009 on misdemeanor drug and DUI charges; the same day of her arrest she had testified in a murder trial. Arthur reportedly was in possession of marijuana and Vicodin, a painkiller. She was employed by Forensic Medical Group, which performs autopsies for several counties in Northern California.
Perhaps the most bizarre incident involving a medical examiner is the case of Dr. O.C. Smith, who operated the Regional Forensic Center in Shelby County, Tennessee. On June 2, 2002, Smith was found chained in a stairwell at the center, tied up with barbed wire with an improvised bomb around his neck. He said he had been attacked by an unknown assailant who threw chemicals in his face to subdue him.
Dr. Smith had testified in the high-profile death penalty case of Philip Workman, who was accused of killing a Memphis police officer despite ballistics evidence that cast doubt on whether he had fired the fatal shot. A note found on Smith after the attack accused him of lying about the evidence against Workman, and it was presumed that an anti-death penalty activist had targeted and assaulted him.
In February 2004, however, Smith was indicted on federal charges of making false statements and possession of an explosive. Federal prosecutors accused him of staging the attack.
“Investigators went around and beat the bushes trying to solve this case,” stated U.S. Attorney Bud Cummins. “But they concluded that he did it to himself.”
Although Dr. Smith went to trial in 2005, the jury was unable to reach a verdict and federal prosecutors declined to retry the case. While Smith did not testify during the trial, local police officials appeared as witnesses on his behalf.
No disciplinary action was taken against Dr. Smith and he remains a licensed forensic pathologist, though he did not regain his job as medical examiner for Shelby County. His testimony and autopsies have been used in hundreds of criminal cases. Philip Workman was executed on May 9, 2007.
Influence of Police and Prosecutors
Even with competent and professional medical examiners, police and prosecutors may exert undue influence on their findings by sharing theories of a crime or information about a suspect, which may lead pathologists to tailor their conclusions to fit the theory of law enforcement officials rather than the facts of a case.
“The medical examiner considers it his job to support whatever series of theories the prosecutors decided to dream up rather than focus on the objective truth,” said Eric M. Freedman, a Hofstra Law School professor who specializes in criminal procedure and strategy.
“That’s what I see happening,” agreed attorney Richard Ellis, who has a client on death row in Texas. “If you start off with a goal in mind, it is easy to get through only looking at signs that point to that preconceived notion to how death occurred.”
A case in point involved 18-year-old Daniel Rocha, who was shot in the back by Austin police in 2005. An initial autopsy revealed no cuts or bruises on Rocha’s body or drugs in his system, contradicting police claims that he was high and fought with officers.
However, a second autopsy, performed by the chief medical examiner, found abrasions on Rocha’s right knee and chin plus traces of marijuana in his system. The police chief fired the officer who shot Rocha and the city paid Rocha’s family $1 million in December 2008.
When Lubbock County, Texas hired Dr. Sridhar Natarajan as its chief medical examiner, county commissioners stipulated that he had to allow law enforcement officials to be present during all phases of autopsies. That would allow officers to present their theory of the case to the examiner and steer the investigation in a desired direction.
Other pathologists have refused to sacrifice their professional reputations and responsibilities. Corinne E. Stern resigned as chief medical examiner for El Paso County in 2005, citing interference by police officials into her death investigations. Yet Stern was later criticized for botching a 2006 autopsy in an Alabama case, when she reported a newborn baby had been suffocated.
The infant’s mother, Bridget Lee, was charged with capital murder and spent nine months in jail. Six experts disagreed with Dr. Stern and concluded the child was stillborn – though three of those same experts had signed off on the original autopsy. The charges were dismissed but Stern stood by her original report of homicide as the cause of death. She presently serves as the medical examiner for Webb County, Texas.
Another problem with forensic pathologists is that judges, juries and even defense attorneys often defer to their findings, even when those findings are improperly influenced by police or prosecutors.
“We’re one step removed from God and St. Michael,” said Dr. Glenn Larkin, a former chief medical examiner in Pennsylvania, referring to the fact that when examiners make mistakes, such errors are likely to go unquestioned.
This ignores the fact that in many cases a pathologist’s determination as to how a person died is simply an opinion. It may be an opinion based on the best interpretation of the available evidence, but it’s still an opinion. Nor is it always an unbiased opinion.
Some medical examiners go so far as to help the prosecution by hindering defense counsel’s access to their records. For example, Dr. Roberto Bayardo, Travis County’s chief medical examiner, admitted he never took notes because he feared they could be subpoenaed.
Why would presumably impartial medical examiners, whose work is based on sound scientific methodology, fear having their records scrutinized by defense attorneys? Possibly because the methods they use aren’t always scientific.
Use of “Junk” Science
Some medical examiners use junk science – that is, they base their factual conclusions on things that have little or no basis in fact. In Tarrant County, for instance, chief medical examiner Nizam Peerwani said he was taught that bruises change color from blue to purple, with blue indicating a one-day-old bruise and purple meaning three-to-five days old. Although that was in his forensic science textbook, Peerwani said it has no scientific validity. “This is absolute rubbish,” he stated. “You cannot give any scientific predictive value to this.”
As another example, when medical examiner Corinne Stern found that an infant had been suffocated at birth rather than stillborn, which led to murder charges against the baby’s mother, she relied on a “floating lung test.” Under the test, a newborn’s lungs are removed and placed in water; if they float, that indicates the baby was born alive and took breaths, which filled the lungs with air. However, forensics experts have said the floating lung technique is scientifically invalid because gases created by bacteria can cause the lungs to float, too.
Additionally, many parents and caregivers have been sentenced to prison for shaking a baby to death. The primary evidence used in such convictions is bleeding in the baby’s brain, which medical examiners have taken to be proof of “shaken baby syndrome.” An article in the March 27, 2004 issue of the British Medical Journal described research related to this premise and found that it “cannot be supported by objective scientific evidence.”
Researchers from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill confirmed the article’s conclusions, using MRI studies to discover minor brain bleeding in 26% of the babies they studied. Those babies showed no other signs of abuse or trauma. Some researchers now believe that the vaginal birth process may cause such brain bleeds. What this means for prisoners who were convicted using questionable shaken baby syndrome evidence is unclear.
“We have respected people on both sides of the medical profession speaking very loudly and now with greater and greater vitriol as to whether that theory is legitimate,” said physicist Thomas Bohan, president of the National Academy of Sciences.
Other dubious forensic methodology includes bullet lead comparison, dog scent lineups, bite mark comparison, and even fingerprint and DNA analysis. [See: PLN, Oct. 2010, p.1]. Sometimes medical examiners apparently make up their “expert” conclusions, which have no scientific basis.
Former Mississippi medical examiner Steven Hayne testified in a murder case “within reasonable medical certainty” that two people had fired a gun that resulted in a single fatal bullet wound, based on his examination of the victim’s wound. As a result, Tyler Edmonds, then 14 years old, was convicted in 2004 and sentenced to life.
The Mississippi Supreme Court later reversed his conviction, finding that Hayne’s testimony was “speculative” and “scientifically unfounded.” The Court noted that “[y]ou cannot look at a bullet wound and tell whether it was made by a bullet fired by one person pulling the trigger or by two persons pulling the trigger simultaneously.” See: Edmonds v. State, 955 So.2d 787 (Miss. 2007). Edmonds was retried in 2008 and acquitted. “If anybody deserves to be in jail, it’s him,” Edmonds stated, referring to Dr. Hayne.
Hayne is currently pursuing a federal lawsuit against the Innocence Project, raising defamation claims related to comments the Innocence Project made in a complaint seeking to have his medical license revoked. See: Hayne v. The Innocence Project, U.S.D.C. (S.D. Miss.), Case No. 3:09-cv-00218-DPJ-JCS.
In February 2009, the National Academy of Sciences released a report critical of the flimsy science behind some commonly-used investigatory techniques and the failure of forensics experts to acknowledge any uncertainty in their methods. The report called for standardization of forensic terminology and development of quantifiable measures of accuracy for forensic testing.
“Much research is needed not only to evaluate the reliability and accuracy of current forensic methods but also to innovate and develop them further,” said Constantine Gatsonis, director of the Center for Statistical Sciences at Brown University and co-chair of the committee that wrote the report.
Because a medical examiner may be the only person who stands between someone being wrongly accused of committing a heinous crime, it is clear that forensic pathologists need to take their responsibilities seriously and be held publicly accountable for their evidentiary conclusions.
Such accountability should include mandatory training; accreditation by independent agencies; minimum professional standards for medical examiners; stringent oversight, including in regard to autopsy caseloads; independence from influence by law enforcement officials; and proof of the validity of the scientific methods upon which examiners base their forensic findings.
Given the enormous power that medical examiners wield, and the life-and-death decisions they often make, such safeguards are necessary to ensure public confidence in this important part of our criminal justice system.
“Reliable forensic evidence increases the ability of law enforcement officials to identify those who commit crimes, and it protects innocent people from being convicted of crimes they didn’t commit,” observed Harry T. Edwards, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit and co-chair of the committee that authored the National Academy of Sciences report. “Because it is clear that judicial review alone will not cure the infirmities of the forensic science community, there is a tremendous need for the forensic science community to improve.”
Roland L. Singer, who directs the crime lab for the medical examiner’s office in Tarrant County, Texas, was more succinct. “Obviously, we’re not as good as they [the public] think we are,” he acknowledged.
Sources: Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Houston Chronicle, Tennessean, Associated Press, http://health.state.tn.us, www.wkrn.com, www.timesfreepress.com, www.lakeconews.com, www.reason.org, www.slate.com, CNN, affidavit of Dr. Lloyd White in Ex Parte Swearingen (9th Judicial District Court, Montgomery County, Texas, Case No. 99-11-06435-CR-2)