Even when medical examiners don’t perform the most basic part of their job, they get paid.
North Carolina requires medical examiners to inspect bodies for evidence of violence, trauma or other signs of unnatural death. For that inspection, writing a report, and other steps, they receive $100 per case.
But since 2001, an Observer data analysis shows that the state and counties have paid about $1.2 million for cases where medical examiners didn’t view bodies, including $88,000 to one Johnston County medical examiner.
“If you don’t do what you’re supposed to, you shouldn’t get paid,” said Timothy Rohrig, director of a forensics science center in Wichita, Kan.
North Carolina rarely disciplines medical examiners who don’t view bodies.
State Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Deborah Radisch said she believes improved training is a better remedy than withholding payments.
“It’s more important to get them to do it right in the first place,” she said.
Money for nothing?
Radisch and her predecessors have essentially treated medical examiners like volunteers.
From 2001 through September 2010, John Dykers Jr. handled more than half of Chatham County’s medical examiner cases.
He received $25,000 for about 275 cases in which he did not view the bodies, the state’s records show. Dykers viewed bodies in just 27 percent of his cases, but he argues he deserved payment anyway.
“You have to process all these forms,” said Dykers, who worked as a family practitioner before surrendering his medical license in 2010. “You still have a lot of crap work to do.”
Duplin County Medical Examiner Dr. Hervy Kornegay Sr., 81, has been on the job for 40 years. Since 2001, he did not view bodies in about 290 cases, but still has received more than $22,000.
Kornegay said he refuses to go see bodies in possible homicides because he doesn’t want to testify in court. “If I don’t see ’em, I can’t offer anything,” Kornegay said.
Johnston medical examiner Dr. Leslie Taylor III received more than $88,000 for about 975 cases in which he did not view the body – the highest total for any medical examiner. The state’s records show that since 2001 he investigated nearly nine out of 10 suspicious death cases in Johnston.
Taylor accepted cases that were likely natural deaths and do not fall under the jurisdiction of a medical examiner, Radisch said. Medical examiners are supposed to investigate only sudden and unexplained deaths.
Asked if Taylor should be collecting tax dollars for such cases, Radisch said it is “probably not fair.”
Johnston County officials said they were not aware that local tax dollars usually pay the medical examiners’ fee – or that officials in Raleigh had concerns about some of the cases Taylor accepted.
“I want to make sure that we’re getting the services that we paid for,” said Jeff Carver, chairman of the Board of Commissioners. “And if we’re not, yes, I’d take great exception to that.”
Taylor didn’t respond to repeated interview requests or a certified letter.
Starting a small business
In Gaston County, medical examiner Dr. Bruce Flitt turned his public position into a small business by arranging for nurses to handle his duties. He collected thousands of dollars for cases but never viewed the bodies, according to state records.
Flitt, 54, has worked as an emergency room physician at several Carolinas hospitals, including CaroMont Regional Medical Center in Gastonia.
After Flitt became a medical examiner in the late 1990s, he created a company, Forensic Examiners Inc., according to lawsuit depositions, which also say the company hired off-duty nurses to do much of Flitt’s medical examiner work.
The nurses compiled information and submitted paperwork to Flitt, documents say. He would sign his name to death certificates and investigative reports, collect payment from Gaston or the state, and share the money with the nurses.
Since 2001, the company has received more than $184,000. Gaston and the state paid at least $20,000 on cases in which no one examined the corpse, data show.
Flitt declined to answer questions in person and wouldn’t sign for a certified letter that included questions about his business.
But in a 2010 deposition, Flitt said he made little money as a medical examiner and did it as a “public service.”
“It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Flitt said.
Gaston lists multiple medical examiners, but Flitt testified that he handled most of the cases, except for the small town of Cherryville. He said then-state Chief Medical Examiner Dr. John Butts knew how he operated, but raised no objections.
Experts from outside North Carolina said they had never before heard of such an arrangement.
Problems with a case Flitt handled led Gretchen Crowder of Charlotte to sue the state Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the state medical examiner’s office.
After Crowder’s 22-year-old son Matthew died in 2005, Flitt ruled that he committed suicide. Flitt never visited the death scene or viewed the body himself. Crowder believes her son may have died from foul play.
According to Crowder’s suit, several weeks after her son’s funeral, she opened her mailbox to find a death report that contained errors and omissions – including the wrong eye color. Spaces to designate the person’s race and sex were left blank. She said she feared her family had buried the wrong body at the closed-casket service.
“Who is in the casket?” she recalled thinking.
The report, written with information from one of Flitt’s nurses, says Crowder’s body was viewed at Carothers Funeral Home in Gastonia, according to deposition testimony. His body was warm to the touch, the report says.
Funeral home employees, however, testified that Crowder’s body had been inside a refrigeration unit. They said they did not remember seeing anyone from the medical examiner’s office look at the body.
Nearly a year after Crowder died, his body was exhumed and the state performed an autopsy, but did not change the cause of death.
Gretchen Crowder is now seeking damages for emotional and mental distress over the handling of the investigation. The state Court of Appeals is expected to issue an opinion soon.
“We citizens don’t pay a medical examiner merely to sign a paper,” said Chet Rabon, a Charlotte attorney representing Crowder. “We pay them to perform a duty.”
Researcher Maria David contributed.