Get serious about fixing death probes

The Observer editorial board

An autopsy technician at the morgue in Raleigh.
An autopsy technician at the morgue in Raleigh. cseward@newsobserver.com

The medical examiner ruled that David Worley died in a car crash. She didn’t turn over his body and see the stab wounds in his back.

The medical examiner ruled that James Cooper died of heart problems. An autopsy later found the blunt trauma to his head, probably from a hatchet.

The medical examiner said Fred Lookabill died of natural causes. But then a funeral home worker heard shotgun pellets hit the metal table during embalming.

The medical examiner ruled Virginia Gregg died of natural causes. Without visiting the scene, he missed that she was found dead in her closet with a broken neck, broken ribs and hemorrhaging in her neck muscles.

North Carolina’s system for investigating suspicious deaths is broken. And legislators, who vowed to fix it after an Observer series last year, appear poised to make small changes that fail to address the system’s biggest shortcomings.

It’s reminiscent of 2001. Back then, the Observer reported on North Carolina’s flawed death investigations. Lawmakers were shocked and pledged to repair it. In the end, they did nothing. Thirteen years went by with the state letting down more anguished widows, confusing more children who had lost a parent, and literally letting people nearly get away with murder.

The Observer’s “Fatally Flawed” series last year was the most comprehensive analysis of N.C. death rulings ever. It uncovered an amateurish system riddled with problems: Underpaid and undertrained medical examiners fail to go to the death scene 90 percent of the time. They don’t even lay eyes on the body before making a ruling in one out of nine cases. They are paid a paltry $100 per case, regardless of whether they conduct a professional investigation.

Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Republican from Cornelius, introduced a bill this spring to fix the problems. It would hire 40 to 60 full-time certified death investigators around the state. It would require that they go to the death scene. It would institute new training and raise the pay for investigations and autopsies. Though Sen. Phil Berger has suggested it is too costly, it would require just $8 million a year, on average, over the next 10 years.

Unfortunately, Tarte’s bill has sat untouched in a Senate committee since March. The House and Senate have each included reforms in their budgets. But they are inadequate. They provide just $100,000, for instance, for statewide training. They don’t hire professional, full-time investigators. And they don’t require visits to death scenes.

If House and Senate budget negotiators continue on this path, they’ll pass some window-dressing that fails to address the core problems. Many of the little-trained volunteer medical examiners will continue the sloppy practices they’ve made habits for years.

Homicides will be misidentified. Life insurance payments will be stalled. And legislators will have missed a chance, again, to fulfill a fundamental state responsibility.