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State pathologist now under investigation loses his job

A top official with the N.C. medical examiner’s office has lost his job following allegations that he mishandled evidence important to a 2011 homicide investigation.

Dr. Clay Nichols has been “separated” from his position as the state’s deputy chief medical examiner effective Nov. 5, according to a letter from Chief Medical Examiner Deborah Radisch.

Nichols was instructed to remove all his belongings from the office by 5 p.m. Friday. State officials gave no reason for Nichols’ termination, calling it a confidential personnel matter.

The Observer reported this week that the State Bureau of Investigation has been investigating Nichols and has been examining his autopsy of Terrell Boykin, a 19-year-old Cumberland County man who was shot to death in 2011.

Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said he expects to decide soon whether to file criminal charges.

Authorities have not divulged details of the allegations against Nichols. But a state law makes it a crime for anyone to alter, destroy or steal evidence connected to a criminal case.

Since 2011, when Nichols joined the medical examiner’s office, he has been the state’s busiest pathologist, performing more than 900 autopsies, an Observer analysis of state data found. That includes more than 400 autopsies last year.

The National Association of Medical Examiners, a group that sets guidelines for death investigations, recommends that pathologists not perform more than 250 autopsies in a single year. That’s because mistakes can result from large caseloads, the group says.

Since 2001, 16 state pathologists exceeded the recommended workload, the Observer found.

The medical examiner’s office performs autopsies in thousands of sudden and unexpected deaths each year. Autopsies are often key to solving murder cases, helping authorities identify how victims died and what weapons killed them.

Nichols has autopsied the bodies of about 180 homicide victims since 2011 – more than any other state pathologist.

An unsolved shooting

The SBI investigation into Nichols stems in part from an early morning shooting spree in Cumberland County that left Boykin and another man dead.

State records show Nichols performed Boykin’s autopsy on May 10, 2011, two days after the shooting. Boykin died from a gunshot wound to the head, the records show.

Cumberland County District Attorney Billy West said no one has been charged in Boykin’s death, and it remains an unsolved homicide.

Woodall, the Orange County prosecutor, told Raleigh television state WRAL that the SBI is examining “a couple of autopsies” performed by Nichols to determine whether policies and procedures were followed.

Nichols, 58, could not be reached for comment this week.

He joined the state medical examiner’s office in 2011 after working as a forensic pathologist in South Carolina for more than 20 years.

He earned an annual salary of more than $192,000, state records show.

He has served as a fellow in the College of American Pathologists. The N.C. Medical Board, which licenses doctors, lists no adverse actions against him.

Nichols has also played a role in a high-profile criminal case involving Crystal Mangum, the accuser in the Duke lacrosse case. He concluded that Reginald Daye – a man Mangum is charged with killing in 2011 – died of a stab wound.

Nichols’ findings in that case have been disputed by a retired physician who contends that medical mistakes – not the stabbing – killed Daye. Nichols has stood by his report, saying Daye’s death is directly linked to the stab wound.

Mangum is scheduled to face trial starting next week. Her supporters say the criminal justice system is punishing her for accusing three university students of rape in 2006.

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