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Prosecutor: Former top state pathologist did not commit crime

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Dr. Clay Nichols.

Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said Friday that he will not pursue criminal charges against a former top state pathologist accused of mishandling evidence in two unsolved homicide cases.

Woodall told the Observer that a State Bureau of Investigation probe into Dr. Clay Nichols did not prove that a crime occurred.

But Woodall said the case has raised questions about the performance of the state medical examiner’s office. The agency conducts investigations and performs autopsies to determine causes of suspicious deaths, such as homicides, suicides and drug overdoses.

“The fact that no crime was charged, that doesn’t mean there was absolutely no issue here,” Woodall said. “There’s obviously work that needs to be done to ensure that good quality work is coming out of the medical examiner’s office.”

In his first public comments since the investigation surfaced, Nichols told the Observer he did nothing wrong.

Nichols, 58, said the state acted too hastily in dismissing him from a job that paid him more than $192,000 a year. He said officials should have waited until the conclusion of the SBI probe before making a decision. Nichols said now he wants his job back and an apology from the state.

“I have been piled on and dumped on,” Nichols said.

Nichols said he was not sure why he was suspected of a crime.

“I didn't steal evidence,” he said. “I didn’t damage evidence. I didn’t throw evidence away.”

Woodall said he would discuss concerns in a meeting next week with the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the medical examiner system.

Woodall did not go into specifics but said some issues are related to how the medical examiner’s office documents evidence.

In September, the SBI began investigating Nichols, who was North Carolina’s deputy chief medical examiner until he was dismissed last week. Authorities received a tip about Nichols’ handling of evidence in two murder cases in 2011.

State law makes it a crime for anyone to alter, destroy or steal evidence connected to a criminal case.

Woodall assumed authority in the case because his district includes Chapel Hill, where the state medical examiner’s office was located until it moved to Raleigh last year.

The state medical examiner’s office performs autopsies in more than 3,500 sudden and unexpected deaths each year. Autopsies are considered the most reliable way to determine the cause and circumstances of deaths.

Woodall said he’s been in contact with several district attorneys and lawyers who have cases in which Nichols performed the autopsy. He also said the SBI is open to investigating additional claims about Nichols’ work, if any should arise.

“There could be an issue of how things are documented,” Woodall said. “When that type of information comes to light, it’s incumbent on DHHS to look at it and make some assessments to see how things could be improved.”

Ricky Diaz, a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said officials would meet with Woodall but declined further comment.

In a statement, Dr. Robin Cummings, deputy secretary for Health Services, said he was pleased with the district attorney’s decision. He also said that the investigation highlighted personnel shortages at the state medical examiner’s office.

Earlier this month, the agency told employees that on a temporary basis Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Deborah Radisch would focus solely on autopsies and other aspects of suspicious death cases and would not perform administrative duties until two new pathologists start early next year.

Lou Turner, deputy chief of epidemiology for the state Division of Public Health, will assume Radisch’s administrative duties, the memo said.

As part of its investigation, the SBI reviewed Nichols’ work on Terrell Boykin, a 19-year-old Cumberland County man who was shot to death in 2011.

Woodall said authorities looked into allegations Nichols mishandled a bullet or bullet jacket and checked to see whether the evidence was properly documented.

Cumberland County District Attorney Billy West said he agreed with the decision to not seek criminal charges against Nichols.

He said the police investigation into Boykin has not been hindered by Nichols’ work.

Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for the SBI, said investigators also reviewed how Nichols handled the death of a Robeson County resident.

Talley did not divulge any other details.

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