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Failing folks in their hardest hour

How well North Carolina’s medical examiners do their jobs is not something most of us worry about much. Until it’s our spouse, or parent, or child who died under unusual circumstances.

“Getting away with murder” has become a cliché, but in North Carolina it’s actually happening because medical examiners are failing to do their jobs adequately. A team of Observer reporters has spent two years examining the system; their five-part series begins today.

They tell the story of David Worley. State troopers told his mother that he had died in a car crash. Medical examiner Linda Robinson saw injuries to the front of his body, but she never looked at Worley’s back. So she missed the four stab wounds, apparently inflicted by an 8-inch butcher knife. Worley’s widow is now charged with first-degree murder. If the wounds hadn’t later been spotted by someone else, Robinson acknowledged, the suspect “could have gotten away with murder. There’s no doubt about it.”

They will also tell the story of Tom Cooper. He was found in a pool of blood in his kitchen. Yet medical examiner Leslie Taylor III ruled he had died of heart disease. Detectives insisted on an autopsy, which found the back of Cooper’s skull had been bashed in three times. An acquaintance of Cooper is now serving six to eight years for voluntary manslaughter.

These cases and many others highlight a disturbing fact: They are called medical examiners, but in North Carolina they’re often not examining much. In thousands of cases, they make rulings without so much as seeing the body. They very rarely go to the death scene, though that is considered nearly automatic in other states.

They also receive no training and little guidance, are paid a pittance and are rarely held accountable. The state spends less than half what the average state spends on its death investigation system. Experts in several other states shake their heads at how North Carolina operates.

The Observer investigation tells of a Chatham County medical examiner who wrongly declared a woman had died of cardiac arrest – though he never laid eyes on the body. It quotes a Guilford County medical examiner as saying he often writes off a death as cardiac arrest when he’s unsure of a cause. “That seems to satisfy everyone,” he says.

This amateur hour leaves families with unanswered questions, keeps them from collecting life insurance and overlooks crimes.

Perhaps most egregiously, the system has performed poorly for years and state officials have known it but chosen not to fix it. An Observer series in 2001 uncovered similar problems. A task force recommended sweeping reforms, but the legislature failed to act. Thirteen years later, little has changed.

The state needs to train its medical examiners, pay them better and hold them more accountable. Perhaps then fewer families would be tormented further as they wrestle with the hardest time of their lives.

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The Charlotte Observer welcomes your comments on news of the day. The more voices engaged in conversation, the better for us all, but do keep it civil. Please refrain from profanity, obscenity, spam, name-calling or attacking others for their views.

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