VOL. 127 | NO. 171 | Friday, August 31, 2012
New Forensics Center Takes Technological Leap
By Bill Dries
The new $13 million Regional Forensic Center that formally opened Wednesday, Aug. 29, at 637 Poplar Ave. is the first facility of its kind in West Tennessee that is not a hand-me-down adapted pathology center.
Eight years into the planning and political process, the center is a vast improvement over the old Shea Clinic building on Madison Avenue that served as the temporary forensics center for nearly 30 years. It had two tables for autopsies and bodies were unloaded on its back parking lot and wheeled across into the building.
X-rays were done using the old “wet” method that took a lot of time to develop.
The new facility has a digital X-ray room and the ability to store the images digitally. There are special autopsy suites in the 37,000-square-foot facility for children and infants, decomposed or skeletal remains and those with infectious diseases.
The main autopsy suite has halogen lights, fluorescent light and opaque skylights to let in natural light as well. A slight difference in pressure is noticeable because it is a “negative pressure” room. The ventilation and other systems in the room are designed to reduce the amount of airborne particles and other substances.
When examiners are working the suite is at about 50 degrees, which is also a concession to the layers of special clothing they wear as part of the work.
Any kind of security for the old Madison building was made to adapt to a structure in which the chain of custody of evidence was never an original consideration. Nor were modern methods to protect those conducting autopsies and working with the bodies from being exposed to harmful and toxic substances.
Tennessee medical examiner Dr. Karen Cline-Parhamovich defined the mission of the forensics center as “to speak for those who cannot speak.”
“Crime is important. It’s part of what we do. But it’s actually not a large part of what we do.”
–Dr. Karen Chancellor
Shelby County chief medical examiner
The center’s work is associated with violent crime and clouded by television shows that invent procedures and telescope the time it takes to reach scientific conclusions.
“Crime is important. It’s part of what we do,” said Shelby County chief medical examiner Dr. Karen Chancellor. “But it’s actually not a large part of what we do. We have a lot of homicides in Memphis and Shelby County. But we also have a lot of natural unexpected deaths – unexpected deaths of infants that are investigated here. We have accidents, suicides.”
The counties outside Memphis pay for the costs of the investigations at the forensics center. Chancellor expects to eventually expand the scope to most if not all of the 20 counties west of the Tennessee River.
In all of those cases, there is evidence even if the investigation is simply answering questions about how someone died without any criminal charges involved. And the maintenance of that evidence is why the building has some new security precautions built in. They include live video monitored by the federal Department of Homeland Security as well as the Memphis Police Department’s Real Time Crime Center.
“Human remains have an evidential component to them,” said Sean Lester, director of investigations and technical services for the Medical Examiner’s office. “We must maintain custody in the intake, during the examination as well as paperwork being done to release the remains. There are layers of security – the monitors, the locked doors. … After the evidence is collected, it’s catalogued. It’s photographed. It’s entered in our database. And it’s maintained and audited until we release it.”
Three times a day an inventory is taken of bodies in the facility that can hold up to 16 on a normal day and more in the event of mass casualties.
The Memphis center also has scientific standards that apply to all five of the regional forensics centers in the state. The Memphis facility, which serves 11 West Tennessee counties including Shelby, is the newest.
“There are unique needs as far as resources to handle death investigations,” Cline-Parhamovich said. “But the common need throughout is the need for consistency and standards so that regardless of what county a person dies in, they still get the same level of death investigation that they would get if they died in Shelby County.”