In response to countless inquiries into how the M.E.'s Office got to the point it is at today - and why no one can make the MedicoLegal Board fix the Agency (since they supposedly oversee it and families can't even get a return call from the Board Members most of the time) - here are the hows and whys of it. And most importantly, how we at Justice For The Dead intend to fix it.
The ME's Office is created by statute.
63 O.S. Sec 931 reads:
The Board of Medicolegal Investigations is hereby re-created. The members of the Board shall be:
1. The Director of the State Bureau of Investigation, or a designee;
2. The State Commissioner of Health, or a designee;
3. The Dean of the College of Medicine of the University of Oklahoma, or a designee;
4. The President or Dean of the Oklahoma State University Center for Health Sciences, or a designee;
5. The President of the Oklahoma Bar Association, or a designee;
6. The President of the Oklahoma Osteopathic Association, or a designee;
7. The President of the Oklahoma State Medical Association, or a designee; and
8. A funeral director, as provided by Section 396.3 of Title 59 of the Oklahoma Statutes appointed by the Oklahoma State Board of Embalmers and Funeral Directors.
... Members of the Board shall receive no compensation for their services on this Board.
As you can see, because the Board members are neither appointed by the Governor nor elected, and are twice removed even from the elected lawmakers who wrote this statute (via the "or a designee" language), they are literally accountable to NO ONE. For example, we cannot call the governor and complain about their decisions, or have someone above them correct the multitude of mistakes coming out of that Agency. We cannot vote them out of Office when they fail to have even basic policies in place to make an Agency that handles the most important cases there are - cases where a life has been lost - function properly. We have no recourse when they decline our requests to speak at their Board Meetings and fail to even return our phone calls. Being a Board Member of the ME's Office is also a part-time, unpaid gig - giving none of the Board Members any kind of a vested interest in the overall well-being of that Agency.
ALL the problems at the M.E.'s Office are due to the way they are created by Statute: insulated, isolated, and with no accountability to the tax-payers who fund the disaster of an Agency that the Board oversees.
It also doesn't help that the Board has little authority over the physicians, except for the responsibility of appointing a Chief Medial Examiner. In the past year, they have failed miserably at this task. The job has been in the hands of no less than five (5) people, some of them just interim-acting Chiefs, and one was not even a physician! The lack of a Chief is devastating to the Agency, because only the Chief has authority over the other pathologists - you know, the ones who keep messing up the death certificates in all the cases that have been inundating the news. And the latest "Acting Chief," Dr. Sibley, has been quoted as saying the Agency's reputation is too bad to attract good pathologists and employees. The irony of him making that statement is priceless. He was run out of a coronor's office in Arizona after he was sued by another employee for sexual harassment. The Plaintiff's lawyer told Channel 9 the evidence in that case was that in addition to the sexual misconduct, Sibley would also take his motorcycle into the morgue and allow strippers to attend autopsies. Don't take my word for it - watch the expose HERE. Sibley was accused of similar sexual misconduct in Oklahoma's Tulsa Office! And yet this is the man the MedicoLegal Board has running the show.
It is time to REVAMP the Board and make them accountable to us. I for one, as a tax paying citizen, am incensed that my tax dollars are funding this shocking ineptitude when there is serious work to be done in that Agency.
Which leads to a huge problem in how they currently operate: they will NOT perform autopsies in all sudden, violent deaths, and have not for many years. How do they justify this?
63 O.S. Sec 938 reads:
A. All human deaths of the types listed herein shall be investigated as provided by law:
1. Violent deaths, whether apparently homicidal, suicidal, or accidental, including but not limited to, deaths due to thermal, chemical, electrical, or radiational injury, and deaths due to criminal abortion, whether apparently self-induced or not;
2. Deaths under suspicious, unusual or unnatural circumstances;
3. Deaths related to disease which might constitute a threat to public health;
4. Deaths unattended by a licensed medical or osteopathic physician for a fatal or potentially- fatal illness;
5. Deaths of persons after unexplained coma;
6. Deaths that are medically unexpected and that occur in the course of a therapeutic procedure;
7. Deaths of any inmates occurring in any place of penal incarceration; and
8. Deaths of persons whose bodies are to be cremated, buried at sea, transported out of the state, or otherwise made ultimately unavailable for pathological study.
The M.E.'s Office has been interpreting the language "shall be investigated" in this Section to mean they do NOT have to perform autopsies, but rather can squeak by with sending a "death investigator" who is NOT a physician to a crime scene, with little more than a high school diploma as an educational background, and have him agree with the cops that the death was a suicide or accident. This "investigator" then calls it in and gets a "remote sign-out" by a pathologist who has never viewed the body or conducted an autopsy that could reveal crucial evidence.
This has resulted in SEVERAL miscarriages of justice. One of the most maddening and repeated scenarios occurs when "suicide" determinations are prematurely made by law enforcement relying on an abuser's statement that his wife/girlfriend killed herself. (See the cases of Chanda Turner, Ashley Thompson, Katrina Rivera-Hill, Sheila Deviney, Carissa Holliday, and in the case of Landon "Hopper" Edwards, an abusive girlfriend's assertion that her boyfriend killed himself was enough for her skate without prosecution). Each story is profiled on JFTD, and you can read them by clicking each person's name.
Particularly in smaller towns, the pattern that has emerged is cops take the abuser's statement at face value without properly investigating (i.e. identifying a history of abuse, or noting inconsistent physical evidence, or interviewing witnesses, etc) and just close the case on suicide. Or if the perpetrator is a member of law enforcement himself, his buddies help cover up the deaths as suicides, knowing the ME's Office won't catch it because no one is going to perform an autopsy and the ME "investigator" doesn't have the training, expertise, education, or even inclination to disagree with their "official" finding. When poorly trained death investigators out of the ME's Office (one was promoted to investigator from a janitorial position) conduct no independent investigation of their own and just rubber stamp the cops, justice is absolutely DENIED to deceased victims and their loved ones. In fact, one of the reasons the ME's Office lost its national accreditation in 2009 was because of how poorly trained our death investigators are.
When the M.E.'s Office just remotely signs off on death certificates without conducting an INDEPENDENT review, and refuses autopsies to families who are screaming foul play, they are PARTICIPATING in the re-victimization of the deceased and their loved ones. Additionally - because "suicides" are not autopsied no matter how suspicious the circumstances - the ME's Office is participating in the destruction of potentially useful evidence. Once a body is cremated, for instance, there is no way for a post-exhumation autopsy to take place (like the family got in Chanda Turner's case after a decade-long fight - and not surprisingly, the results of the autopsy were that the death was a homicide).
The tragic end-result that occurs when a homicide investigation has been botched by small-town law enforcement is that a "suicide" rubber stamp by the M.E.'s Office blocks all efforts to get a the case prosecuted - by either a multi-county grand jury or even that county's District Attorney - because many prosecutors justifiably believe a death certificate that reads "suicide" is tantamount to "reasonable doubt." And because there is NO provision in the existing statutes giving next of kin a way to challenge an erroneous cause/manner of death determination and have it corrected, not even a willing prosecuting agency can move forward with a prosecution.
It is because of all these flaws with the statute under which the ME's Office operates that the ME's Office has become the disaster of an Agency we deal with today. The legislature created this monster, and only the legislature can fix it. STATUTORY REFORM is desperately needed so the JFTD families - and other families who have been equally and seriously wronged - can get some long-overdue justice.
Some of the statutory changes the families who have united on Justice For The Dead are demanding are that the word "investigated" be changed to "autopsied" in 63 O.S. Sec. 938(A). If it would be too much a financial burden on the State to autopsy every death that needs "investigation," AT LEAST violent and suspicious deaths - even if they appear to be suicides - shall be AUTOPSIED rather than simply "investigated," and death investigators must receive proper training to be able to conduct independent investigations at crime scenes.
Another much-needed change is an appeals process. Once that is in place, in cases where there is evidence conflicting with premature and erroneous cause/manner of death determinations that did not take all the evidence into account [i.e. boyfriend said he found girlfriend dead on back porch, apparently a "suicide" by close-contact gunshot wound to her chest - case closed, no autopsy, inept investigation (i.e. no fingerprints or ballistics run, evidence from scene not collected) - M.E. stamps it as "suicide" without an autopsy or an independent investigation - family gets crime scene photos that totally contradict story that she was shot on porch, physical evidence doesn't match, and boyfriend has history of abusing girlfriend] - this family would be able to present this evidence to the Board and have the deceased victim's death certificate corrected, and continue on to District Court if unsucessful. And by the way, the above "hypothetical" was not a hypothetical at all. Those are only some of the facts from Chanda Turner's case.
There are more cases just like Chanda's on JFTD - so many women die due to domestic violence, and the way our M.E.'s office operates, they actually PARTICIPATE in the re-victimization of these women, who have not only lost their lives to violence, but have been insulted with a "suicide" label on top of it. The worse injury one human being can inflict on another is to snuff out a precious life. The worse insult one can add to that injury is to rob the victim of their legacy as well, and stain their memory with the lie of "suicide." Children deserve better than to be told by authorities their mother/aunt/sister/father/brother/uncle purposefully abandoned them when the evidence not only contradicts it, but demonstrates in many cases the victim actually fought for his or her life. The damage this Agency has done to honest, hardworking Oklahomans on a basic human level is shameful. And frankly, the legislature should be ashamed it has let it go on this long.
All that being said, the Petition we have circulated across the State, which approximately 5,000 Oklahoma Citizens have SIGNED demanding reform of the M.E.'s Office, seeks these REFORMS:
THE CHANDA TURNER REFORM BILL PETITION INITIATIVE:
1. The Board of MedicoLegal Investigations shall be comprised of members appointed by the Governor of the State of Oklahoma. Currently the Board Members are designated by statute and answer to no one. This has created complete lack of accountability and fostered an atmosphere conducive to scandal, incompetence, “secret meetings,” and favor positions in a tax-funded Agency.
2. The Board shall meet once monthly. Any family who questions the determination of the pathologist who handled their deceased loved one’s case may make written application to the Board stating the nature of their complaint. The Board shall provide families due process and a full and fair hearing. Currently the Board has failed to address family member’s concerns. We demand the MedicoLegal Board supervise the ME’s Office and hold employees accountable. Likewise, board members shall be accountable to the Governor as appointees of the Governor.
3. Should the Board, by a quorum vote, find that a pathologist has made an erroneous determination, their finding shall be binding on the pathologist and the error shall be corrected with undue delay. Families may appeal from the Board’s decision directly to the District Court of Oklahoma County. Currently there is no Judicial Oversight. Judicial Oversight is desperately needed.
4. The Chief Medical Examiner shall be selected by the Board, but appointed only upon approval by the Governor, and shall only be terminated from his/her position for cause. The Chief Medical Examiner shall employ other pathologists and investigators, all of whom must have proper qualifications, training, experience and certifications. Currently death investigators are sorely lacking in training and education, resulting in murders being mislabeled “suicide” or “unknown.” Pathologists are lacking certifications resulting in a now-Unaccredited ME’s Office. Poorly trained and educated employees make mistakes that endanger the public. We demand change.
5. Non-physician “administrative” employee positions shall not be superior to, or infringe upon, the Chief Medical Examiner’s responsibilities in hiring, firing, and and/or medical determinations.
6. The Medical Examiner’s Office, while aiding law enforcement agencies in MedicoLegal Findings, shall be independent from any and all law enforcement agencies. This will prevent a “rubber stamp” ME’s Office which allows crime to go unprosecuted when local law enforcement has conducted an inadequate investigation or is compromised by conflict of interest. Likewise, it will prevent unjust prosecutions in cases where the ME’s Office “rubber stamps” a prosecution that is lacking in merit in order to please law enforcement or avoid discrediting them. A completely independent investigation by the ME’s Office will result in truth prevailing in all cases.
7. There shall be transparency in the ME’s Office. All reports and findings shall be released to the next of kin, upon request, for any death investigated by the ME’s Office once cause and manner of death have been determined and the death certificate issued. Mistakes are covered up in secrecy. We demand honesty and accountability.
Hopefully citing the ME's statute as it exists today, and the ramifications this has had on Oklahoma families across the State, explains why the language we want passed into law with The CHANDA TURNER REFORM BILL is so crucial. If we don't change the Statute which has allowed the ME's Office to self-destruct to such an alarming degree, we will continue to have JUSTICE DENIED to Oklahomans.
This does not only affect victims of crimes whose murderers have gotten away with it. Incorrect cause/manner of death certificates affect Oklahomans in a multitude of ways - from receiving life insurance proceeds to going after doctors who have killed their children with the overmedication of prescription drugs. On that note, this ARTICLE in this weekend's Daily Oklahoman cited the new President-elect of the Funeral Board Association challenging the integrity of death certificates issued by the ME's Office as well.
Enough is enough. Without the Chanda Turner Reform Bill, Oklahomans will continue to suffer under the thumb of an Agency in total disarray, and there will be no justice for the dead in Oklahoma.