Jason Amerson’s girlfriend admitted that she fired a gun at him shortly before he died.
Sheriff’s deputies found signs of a struggle at the scene. And the fatal bullet passed through a pillow before entering the crown of Amerson’s head.
But Dr. Marion Griffin, the Randolph County medical examiner, never went to the death scene that day in 2009. He never saw the pillow, the blood on the front door or the position of Amerson’s body. Police suspected foul play. But Griffin came to a different conclusion – that Amerson killed himself.
Visiting scenes is vital to competent death investigations, national experts say. But from 2001 through mid-2013, a period studied by the Observer, medical examiners in North Carolina failed to visit death scenes in nine of every 10 cases.
Unlike most nationally accredited systems, North Carolina does not demand that medical examiners visit death scenes – even in suspected homicides. In murder cases, state guidelines merely encourage examiners to “make a special effort, if at all possible, to visit the scene.”
Since 2001, medical examiners have visited the site of a homicide about 14 percent of the time, the Observer found.
Such performance would be unacceptable in many states. Going to scenes and taking photographs is an essential step, officials elsewhere say, because it provides clues about the circumstances surrounding deaths. An empty bottle of painkillers near the victim’s body may suggest suicide; overturned chairs may point to a violent struggle.
“In some cases, without a death scene investigation, you never figure them out,” said Dr. Sally Aiken, chief medical examiner for Spokane County, Wash.
Death investigators in Maryland must attend every scene. Dr. David Fowler, Maryland’s chief medical examiner, said investigating scenes can sometimes be more important than conducting autopsies.
Not doing so, he said, is the equivalent of a doctor saying: “I’m not going to interview my patient. I’m going to interview her husband.”
The Maryland and Spokane offices are accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners. North Carolina’s is not.
North Carolina relies on about 350 people – mostly full-time doctors and nurses – to serve as medical examiners in their off-hours. They’re paid $100 for each suspicious death they investigate, whether they visit scenes or not.
N.C. Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Deborah Radisch said that medical examiners are “basically volunteers” and that if the state required them to visit scenes, “we wouldn’t have very many medical examiners.”
Radisch doesn’t think it’s essential for medical examiners to visit the places where people died, because they can usually get photos and details from police.
“There is little that the ME can add at the scene, especially with current investigative technology and extensive scene photography,” Radisch said last year.
Many national experts disagree. They say it’s important for medical experts to visit scenes because police aren’t trained to investigate the cause of death.
“Police make terrible death investigators,” said Dr. Steven Shapiro, chief medical examiner for Vermont, another nationally accredited system. “They are criminal investigators. If they see there’s nothing sticking out of the body, they’re done.”
Were clues missed?
In the case of Jason Amerson, a 35-year-old furniture plant worker, evidence at the scene was potentially telling. Sheriff’s investigators found drug paraphernalia and signs of a struggle .
Amerson’s body, meanwhile, appeared as though it “had been arranged,” Capt. Derrick Hill, of the Randolph County Sheriff’s Office, told the Observer.
“Due to evidence found in the room, I feel suicide may have been staged,” Hill said.
But Griffin chose to view the body at the hospital morgue rather than the death scene. Records show he handled the case the way he approached many others. According to state data, he visited death scenes in less than 7 percent of the cases he has investigated since 2001.
Griffin, now 78, has worked as a medical examiner since 1971. He said he generally goes to the scene only when police ask him to do so.
In his investigation report on the Amerson case, Griffin relayed this account from the victim’s girlfriend:
On a March morning in 2009, Amerson and his girlfriend had a violent argument at her home in Thomasville, about 70 miles northeast of Charlotte. He tried to strangle her, but she got away. The girlfriend then grabbed her handgun and fired three shots at Amerson, missing each time. Then, “he somehow got the gun and began to hit himself on the head with it.”
The girlfriend ran to a neighbor’s home and called 911. When sheriff’s deputies arrived, they found Amerson dead on a bed with the gun by his side.
“They thought the girlfriend had killed him and then denied the deed,” Griffin wrote.
Some experts question the medical examiner’s suicide ruling.
“If that one came in to our office as a reported suicide, we’d be incredibly suspicious,” said Dr. Todd Grey, Utah’s chief medical examiner.
A subsequent autopsy found that an injury on the top of Amerson’s skull – which Griffin had concluded was a bullet exit wound – was actually an entrance wound.
“If a person is going to shoot himself, is he actually going to put a gun on the top of his head and shoot downward?” asked Amerson’s ex-wife, Katina Craver, who remained friends with him after splitting up. “He’d have to be a contortionist.”
“ I don’t think he pulled the trigger.”
Following the autopsy, the state medical examiner’s office changed the official manner of death from suicide to “undetermined.”
The Randolph District Attorney’s office has not filed charges. That’s partly because Amerson’s girlfriend didn’t confess, said Hill, of the sheriff’s office.
Andy Gregson, the senior Assistant District Attorney for Randolph and Montgomery counties, said he could not discuss the Amerson case because it remains open.
But he said suicide rulings by local medical examiners – even when they turn out to be wrong – can make prosecution difficult.
“It is fair to say that is a barrier we have to hurdle,” he said. “ It’s not an absolute barrier. But can it be a problem? Yes.”
Griffin says he usually collects information from law enforcement officials, but not witnesses and family members.
“I always go by what (police) think is happening to make my opinions,” he said.
A big heart
Friends and family members say Amerson lived a tough life – but had never voiced a desire to end it.
After growing up in Florida and spending years in a boys’ home there, he moved to North Carolina at age 18 to live with his father.
Reserved but easygoing, he liked to hunt and draw cartoons. And he liked playing practical jokes, said his ex-wife, who recalled the time he glued her toothbrush to the bathroom counter.
He stood just 5-foot-5 but had a big heart, friends say. He was fiercely protective of his now-teenage daughter.
His sister, Sylvia Jane Lara, said he once told her that even though his life was hard, he could never kill himself.
“He said, ‘I just couldn’t do that to (my daughter.)’ ”
Staff writers Gavin Off and Fred Clasen-Kelly, and staff researcher Maria David contributed.