Sometimes, death’s only the beginning of one’s troubles.
The shooting of Michael Brown has laid bare many issues festering in American society’s garret, but one of the least talked about might very well be the conditions surrounding the right to perform autopsies. Brown has already undergone three of them and, with the dearth of information about what actually happened that Saturday afternoon, many in the press are turning to the autopsies to speculate about the large gaps left in this story.
Poynter interviewed A.C. Thompson, who wrote a head-spinning 2011 article for ProPublica on the subject. In it he reveals that whoever’s serving your Filet-O-Fish may actually be considered fit to perform autopsies.
“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.”
But some of the most egregious mistakes detailed in the article aren’t from the construction manager-turned-medecine-man. They’re from actual MDs.
“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.”
Some errors are unsalvageable.
“The Massachusetts medical examiner’s office has cremated a corpse before police could determine if the person had been murdered.”
Of course, a big reason behind these failings is money.
“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.”
Autopsy work’s not just about closure for the deceased’s loved ones. Since an autopsy determines whether a death is accidental or criminal, the carrying of justice hinges on the quality of what the coroner does.
The article illustrates this with a few cases, including that of Raymond Robair, a construction worker beat to death by an officer. His autopsy reported initially that he died accidentally. But one of the red flags that led to a second autopsy was the fact that the initial one had been performed by a certain Dr. Paul McGarry, a forensic pathologist notorious for “errors and oversights in autopsy after autopsy”. It took five years–and the Department of Justice looking into things–before the officers involved (the one who murdered and the other covering things up) were tried.
You’d think such systemic issues would light a blow torch under someone’s sphincter. Nah, said an assistant medical examiner.
“‘It’s difficult for people to spend money on medical examiner systems,’ Weedn said. ‘They see it often as wasting money on the dead, without realizing that (…) we look for deaths that are premature, or that should not have happened, so that we can go forth and correct those errors in society.'”
There’s no decent way to end this post so here’s POD’s “Alive”, on the joys of not being dead.