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Office of the Chief Medical Examiner – autopsy, and forensic anthropology


 

Day 9, US research trip, Believe No One

Believe No One takes Fennimore & Simms to the United States Mid West.
These blogs document the places we visited and people we met during the research trip.

Weds, 9th May 2012

Autopsy

Autopsy

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) is based in the Oklahoma State University Medical Centre, a hulking, mud-coloured 1970s building just off Route 66. Today, we’re meeting Forensic Anthropologist, Doctor Angela Berg.  The Tulsa ME’s office covers the eastern half of Oklahoma, Oklahoma City covers the Central and Western counties, but there is only one forensic anthropologist for all of Oklahoma. The OCME is staffed by pathologists, pathologists’ assistants and investigators (as well as admin and office staff).  In the Eastern Division there are two autopsy suites – one used for anthropology. With several victims turning up dead in Oklahoma during the course of Believe No One, we really need to know how the system works in this part of the Mid-West.

Vans carrying bodies roll straight into the morgue – there’s a roller shutter at least 30 feet wide. Sometimes they’re brought in by private ‘funeral home’ SUVs. The main cooler is big and very cold, and smells like a university zoology lab – it reminds me of a flat-fish dissection I did as an undergrad which lasted weeks and has haunted my olfactory centres for decades since. Usually autopsies are performed within 24h, but they do have one body from 2008. Not every body gets X-rayed, because they have to make sure they have enough film to last the year; it’s expensive, and ‘when it’s gone, it’s gone’. They’re hoping to have their ancient kit replaced with state-of-the-art digital equipment, but the world recession is squeezing budgets here, as in the UK.

The old histology area in Tulsa morgue is now used for storage. They have a fume cupboard full of bottles of chemicals. They’ve just taken delivery of some new tables – the old ones were in such poor shape that when you pushed them the wheels fell off.

The OCME holds medical records from 2004. The DA can request photos, records, and files; the defence gets a copy from the prosecution, the family can get an autopsy report, and the Investigating Officer will also have a copy. A lot of older cases don’t even have photos because the pathologist would take their own photos, and it’s possible these will be stored in a place they don’t know about – especially if the pathologist has retired/died/moved on. Hospitals close, and records are lost that way, too. [I make a note – there’s PLENTY of scope for evidence to go missing!]

Medical Examiners do not come out to every scene. ME’s investigators, also called ‘Death Investigators’ are hired by the Medical Examiner’s Office and may be have a background in nursing or law enforcement, or they may have a degree in forensic science. The investigator can help to make decisions about who to call out when remains are found, but local law enforcement (usually the county Sheriff) makes the decision about whether to call her out. This can be very problematic if untrained deputies to scoop up remains, when what Dr Berg really needs is context. One time, she says, they got 40 bones scooped up by deputies. Thirteen were deer. A bone is a bone is a bone, right? Except when it’s an animal bone and you’re looking for human remains… ‘Midnight recovery with a spotlight is ALWAYS a bad idea,’ Dr Berg says. ‘Unless there’s a tornado coming, and then you got no choice.’

OCME forensic anthropology suite

OCME forensic anthropology suite

Further complications arise on Indian Land and Corps of Engineers’ land. Medical Examiners need permission to enter US Army Corps of Engineers’ land; these are building works which control a system of lakes and dams which provide flood control, but also recreation, water supply hydropower, navigation and wildlife habitats. MEs are not allowed onto Indian land because it’s Federal/Tribal land (before Oklahoma became a state, this was Indian Territory, the place to which many Native Americans had been forcibly relocated in the 1830s. Even today, 25+ Indian languages are spoken in Oklahoma). Bones do turn up from time to time on Indian land which pre-date the resettlement, from tribes that are long extinct.

Dave and I have been discussing a storyline that involves a vital clue being missed during autopsy – which in terms of narrative means we could do with the kind of set-up where a country coroner is the local family doctor. Even better if he performs the autopsy at the nearby funeral home. But we’re told that Oklahoma doesn’t have coroners. Medical Examiners are all medical doctors, so you’re not likely to get the situation where an undertaker declares cause of death. Forensic Pathologists are appointed by the state, and are medically certified and independent. Hospital pathologists are not qualified to do forensic autopsy. So, if a shooting victim is brought into the hospital, they are treated, bullets extracted etc. If they die they’re shipped to the FME’s office with drains etc still in place. Police go over to the hospital to pick up samples.  Dr Berg introduces us to Dr Joshua Lanter, Deputy Chief Medical Examiner, and asks his opinion on our ‘country coroner’ storyline.  In the early days of his career, he explains that he did freelance work, going all around the counties to autopsy bodies. In Illinois that sometimes entailed going to funeral homes to do autopsies– it doesn’t have forensic centres; bodies are sent to Forensic Centres in Missouri. So our country doctor-coroner storyline is given a reprieve.

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