N.C. Medical Examiners

Mecklenburg County adds funds for medical examiners

Unlike other N.C. counties, Mecklenburg County operates its own medical examiner office, funded mostly with local tax dollars.

That money allows the office to pay for more training and expertise than is found in most other areas of the state.

Mecklenburg’s medical examiner office employs four full-time investigators and five part-time investigators who gather information about victims and their deaths and assist with autopsies. Investigators rarely visit death scenes.

They receive in-house and online training and attend occasional seminars.

The staff also includes three forensic pathologists – specially trained in the study of violent death – who perform autopsies.

The staff examines bodies in virtually every suspicious death, says Dr. Michael Sullivan, Mecklenburg’s longtime chief medical examiner, who is retiring this year.

Dr. Thomas Owens, an assistant Mecklenburg County medical examiner since 2004, has been named the new chief medical examiner.

Elsewhere in North Carolina, counties depend on state-appointed medical examiners with little or no training. They seldom go to death scenes and sometimes close cases without viewing bodies.

“I have seen some of the difficulties of the volunteer medical examiners,” Sullivan said. “They’re asked to be on duty, so to speak, 24/7. And that’s very difficult for a volunteer to do.”

In North Carolina, some autopsies are conducted by general pathologists, who are trained in the study of natural disease – not suspicious death. Experts from other states say only forensic pathologists should perform autopsies, as happens in Mecklenburg.

Mecklenburg provides $1.1 million annually to operate its medical examiner’s office. State officials allocate about $500,000 more.

In the mid-1960s, Mecklenburg officials realized the county’s size and caseloads demanded more time than physicians investigating deaths in their off-hours could provide. They hired a full-time forensic pathologist to serve as medical examiner.

The state contracts with the Mecklenburg office to do autopsies on bodies from Gaston, Cabarrus, Union, Cleveland and Anson counties.

In December 2008, the staff moved into a new 16,800-square-foot office building in northwest Charlotte. It contains high-tech equipment, including a digital X-ray machine, a specialized body lift and a system to vent odors.

Staff writer Gavin Off contributed.