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Past time to fix death probes

Ed Pardue was 6 years old when his father died. The death was ruled a suicide by drug overdose, a devastating finding for his wife and family. Yet there was no evidence pointing to suicide and no autopsy was conducted.

“Children at school taunted me and it was very distressing,” Charlotte’s Pardue wrote to the Observer last week. “I still carry scars from not only my father’s death, but from the ruling of a medical examiner who did not even take the time to perform an autopsy before making such a ruling.”

Pardue will never know what killed his father 33 years ago. North Carolina’s medical examiner system failed him and his family. The Observer’s five-part series last week showed the system still fails residents every day, despite policymakers being aware of egregious flaws the Observer documented 13 years ago and again with fresh evidence last week.

It is past time for Gov. Pat McCrory and the legislature to make this right. North Carolina’s practices would be firing offenses in other states, and they disrespect family members at the most fragile time of their lives.

The Observer investigative team conducted the most comprehensive analysis of N.C. death rulings ever. It uncovered an amateurish system riddled with problems. N.C. medical examiners rarely visit the death scene, a standard practice in many other states. In thousands of cases they pronounce a cause of death without ever seeing the body, much less performing an autopsy. They receive no training and little guidance, and are subject to almost no accountability. North Carolina spends less than half what the average state spends investigating questionable deaths.

The result: Spouses unable to collect life insurance, children questioning why their parent left them, and criminals going undetected.

The need for dramatic reform is evident, but some leading policymakers don’t seem to get it. Senate leader Phil Berger said he didn’t read the series. House Speaker Thom Tillis declined interview requests.

Thankfully, others do appreciate the need for change. McCrory told the Observer on Friday that he is now asking for a $2 million boost to the medical examiner budget. Rep. Donny Lambeth, R-Forsyth, who co-chairs a key appropriations subcommittee, says the system must be fixed. Rep. Charles Jeter, R-Mecklenburg, said change must come “as quickly as possible.”

McCrory’s $2 million proposal is just a start. The state needs to require medical examiners to visit death scenes and examine bodies. It must pay them substantially more than the $100 per case they get now. It should put them through rigorous training. And it should have them conduct more autopsies, the most reliable tool in death investigations.

Ed Pardue closed his letter to the Observer by saying, “I appreciate you speaking up for those who have been without a voice for all of these years. I appreciate you speaking up for me.”

Now, will Gov. McCrory and legislators speak up for Ed Pardue, as well?

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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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