A risk we can’t afford to take

A calculated risk.

That’s how a noted forensic science expert described a move last year by North Carolina’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner to discourage staff from autopsying the bodies of hundreds of people who died in suspicious or unexpected circumstances.

The chronically short-staffed agency is trying to trim the number of autopsies performed by its pathologists. Some have been doing far more autopsies annually than experts recommend.

So, the office has pointed out types of death cases that its staff shouldn’t regularly subject to autopsies. According to a 2013 memo obtained by the Observer’s Gavin Off, types of cases singled out include apparent natural deaths of people older than 40, victims of alcohol or cocaine poisoning, and those police believe to be the result of suicide by gun or hanging.

Autopsies rank among the most powerful tools for investigating deaths. So cutting back on them is clearly a desperate act by a struggling agency. The answer to overworked pathologists is more pathologists, not fewer autopsies.

The cutback is especially troubling when you consider that the medical examiner’s Raleigh office, which handles autopsies for about 30 central N.C. counties, anchors the state’s last line of forensic defense when it comes to death investigations. The front line? About 350 local medical examiners, many of them private-practice physicians untrained in death investigations.

Most local examiners don’t go to death scenes, as was the case last year when an elderly couple died in a Boone motel. The local examiner conducted autopsies, but found no evidence of foul play. Blood tests later showed carbon monoxide poisoning.

Those test results didn’t come to light until after an 11-year-old boy died in the same room.

The General Assembly earlier this year earmarked $1 million to help the system, and has asked an independent research unit to study it.

A legislative panel last month recommended minimum training standards and studying the feasibility of replacing medical examiners with salaried, trained death investigators.

Sen. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, co-chair of the panel seeking improvements, was troubled by the move to trim autopsies, but said he doesn’t want to micro-manage.

Considering the gravity of what’s at stake here, not to mention decades of unfulfilled promises of reform, a little legislative heavy-handedness might not be a bad thing for once.