Overwhelmed medical examiner systems are a prevalent and persistent problem in states across the nation, and North Carolina is no exception. In fact, a number of industry professionals are now so concerned about the heavy caseloads in the State’s crime labs that they say the risk of errors is bound to increase.
When is enough enough?
Recent reports found that North Carolina’s medical examiners do as many as ten autopsies a day. And, given the fact that a typical autopsy takes between two and four hours to complete, performing more than four in one day is an incredibly difficult feat. Within the State’s Chief Medical Examiner’s office in Raleigh, it was found that pathologists complete more than 250 autopsies every year which, according to many experts, can only lead to mistakes.
For example, Dr. Clay Nichols, North Carolina’s former deputy chief examiner, completed 10 autopsies on Christmas Eve, three of which were determined to be homicides. Nichols recently lost his job after a State Bureau of Investigation probe alleged that he mishandled evidence. Specifically, the Orange County district attorney said that he questions Nichol’s work, which includes how he documented evidence.
Dr. Gregory Schmunk, the president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, said that he was “troubled” to learn that NC pathologists were performing as many as 10 autopsies a day.
“What you’re describing to me would be very concerning,” he said. He went on to say that “the quality of work product is severely called into question” when that many autopsies are performed.
What is the source of the problem?
Heavy caseloads in North Carolina, said state officials, are the result of a lack of funding and a national shortage of forensic pathologists.
A 2007 survey by the National Association of Medical Examiners found that average medical examiner systems spend about $1.76 per person annually on death investigations, while North Carolina spends just about $1 per person.
North Carolina is working to reduce the overload by temporarily reassigning its chief medical examiner to help perform autopsies. The state has also contracted with two more pathologists to perform autopsies on weekends.