VOL. 126 | NO. 106 | Wednesday, June 1, 2011
Tenn. has Troubled History With Medical Examiners
SHEILA BURKE | Associated Press
NASHVILLE (AP) – The court battle to get records of beleaguered former Knox County medical examiner Sandra Elkins provides another glimpse into Tennessee's storied history with some of its top death investigators.
Those who work with them say they can't explain why Tennessee's has had so many problems with its medical examiners.
Elkins was hospitalized in 2008 after police said she threatened to kill a Knoxville police officer during a confrontation at her home. Her predecessor, Randall Pedigo, pleaded guilty to drugging and molesting young males. Former state medical examiner Dr. Bruce Levy was arrested in Mississippi last year on felony marijuana possession. Before that, the state revoked the medical license of former Metro medical examiner Charles Harlan, concluding he botched several autopsies and was responsible for multiple counts of misconduct.
There have been more problems other medical examiners across the state.
They've been accused of storing body parts at home, stealing marijuana found with corpses, and testifying in a drugged-up stupor. One was shot by police while being investigated on child molestation charges. Another was accused of faking his own attack by strapping a homemade bomb to his neck.
And the ongoing court battle to get records of beleaguered former Knox County medical examiner Sandra Elkins provides another glimpse into Tennessee's storied history with some of its top death investigators.
"Historically, if you're not in trouble after five years of being a medical examiner in Tennessee, you're an outlier," said Nashville attorney Dan Warlick.
Before practicing law, Warlick served as the chief investigator for the state medical examiner's office from 1973 to 1979.
Part of the problem, he says, is the personalities that are drawn into the field known as forensic medicine. He says medical examiners can best be described as "hearing a different drummer," drawn to working on the front lines of crime and medicine.
"They also in their daily professional life, on a regular basis encounter tragedy and horror and grief and deal with it in its rawest form," he said. "And over a period of time that type of daily involvement leads to the development of psychological stresses that don't always get tended to."
But they are also often the star witnesses in murder cases and their conclusions – or mistakes – help determine innocence and guilt.
An east Tennessee lawyer, who is fighting for a court to get a closed-door look at Elkins' records, including files that detail her past mental-health and prescription drug use, says medical examiners are "absolutely essential" witnesses.
"You can't get to a murder conviction of any kind without their testimony," said Sevier County Public Defender Ed Miller.
Miller wants to use Elkins records to impeach her credibility in a child murder case where she performed the autopsy. He has asked the Tennessee Supreme Court to reconsider its decision last month to let a lower court's ruling stand forbidding the release of her records.
Before stepping down in 2008, Miller had complained that Elkins appeared to be testifying under the influence of drugs in another murder case.
Knoxville police said she was hospitalized after a February 2008 confrontation in the doctor's home where she threatened to kill an officer. The confrontation, police said, came after her co-workers reported that she was threatening suicide and violence against them.
Her lawyer, Knoxville attorney James A.H. Bell, says that medical records are sacred and Elkins should not be required to produce them.
Elkins' predecessor, Randall Pedigo, pleaded guilty to four counts of sexual battery and four counts of illegally dispensing a controlled substance in 1995. He lured boys and young men to his Knoxville condominium and drugged them before molesting them. A Tennessee Bureau of Investigation agent shot Pedigo multiple times claiming the doctor put him in fear of his life when authorities went to his condo.
Those who work with medical examiners say Tennessee has had more than its share of problems, but can't say why.
"You seem to have had a rash of them," Mary Ann Sens, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners said of the problems, noting that several incidents have made national news.
Others say problems with medical examiners exist elsewhere.
"I don't think it's unique to Tennessee," Dr. Bill Bass, a forensic anthropologist, said of the problems. Bass, who founded the "Body Farm," a research center at the University of Tennessee which studies decomposing bodies, worked as a consultant to medical examiners across the state for more than three decades.
He wonders about the hiring process and whether a nationwide shortage of forensic pathologists contributes to the problem.
Bass said he was surprised when Mississippi authorities arrested former state medical examiner Bruce Levy last year and charged him with felony marijuana possession.
Levy, now 50, cut a deal with Mississippi prosecutors who agreed to dismiss the charges if he stayed out of trouble for three years.
Nashville prosecutors later charged him with one count of official misconduct, claiming he took marijuana that came from clothes and belongings of victims in the morgue.
His attorney, David Raybin, said that both he and Levy would decline comment.
Drugs were also a problem for former Bradley County Medical Examiner Ronald Toolsie, state records show. The state, according to records, suspended his medical license in 2009 after he admitted to medicating himself with valium, phentermine and hydrocodone.
Toolsie could not be reached for comment.
Levy's predecessor, Charles Harlan, lost his medical license in 2005 after a state medical board found him responsible for multiple counts of misconduct, including several botched autopsies.
Harlan was known for erratic bizarre behavior long before he lost his license.
He pleaded no contest in 2002 to putting a GPS-tracking device underneath the vehicle of a former female employee. Harlan's forced resignation as Nashville's medical examiner came after he fired three clerical works in the office who sued him for sexual harassment.
"I think he just got overwhelmed by the amount of work that he took on and the underfunding that he faced to try to get it done," Warlick, Harlan's longtime attorney said. "He was so overworked, because he worked 24/7, he kind of lost touch with normalcy, and it proved to be his undoing."
Dr. O.C. Smith stepped down as Shelby County Medical Examiner in 2004 after he was indicted on charges of possessing explosives and lying to investigators.
Smith was found in a county morgue stairwell in June 2002 with his feet, hands and head wrapped in barbed wire and a live bomb tied to his neck. Smith said he was attacked by an unknown man who threw a chemical in his face.
Investigators charged Smith after concluding that the attack was staged.
Smith was tried in 2005 but the case ended in a mistrial after jurors failed to reach a verdict.
One of Smith's former lawyers, Jim Garts, said federal prosecutors could have retried the former medical examiner but chose to dismiss the case instead. He said Smith is currently working as a consultant who testifies for both the prosecution and the defense.
Bass says it's important to realize there not all of Tennessee's medical examiners have problems.
Sens, of the National Association of Medical Examiners, agreed.
"I think in any profession if you look at all the people in it, and incidents regarding a profession, you'll get in anything instances where stuff shouldn't have happened," Sens said. "You do seem to have a lot of them right now, and it may just be that's a fluke."
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