Yesterday we learned that Oklahoma's illustrious M.E.'s Office decided to change an obviously incorrect manner of death from suicide to unknown in the death of an 11 year old child. This child was dead in her home for so long she was decomposing before her mother even realized she was deceased. Of a methadone overdose.
Anyone who hasn't succumbed to the mind-numbing complacency that allows such ridiculous rulings to go unchecked, and who is still operating with working brain-cells, may have questioned the "suicide" ruling from last Christmas right out of the gate. Such a person might wonder, HOW does a mother not know her 11 year old is dead in the house for DAYS? At some point, would a parent not think it strange that their child hasn't, oh I don't know, come downstairs to EAT? And how does an 11 year old get a hold of methadone, much less know what do to with it? Methadone is a controlled, dangerous substance that is often used by heroin addicts to taper down off heroin addiction. Might the presence of methadone in the home explain why her mother didn't realize the child was dead for days? Is mom a heroin junkie? If the methadone WAS her mom's, is there a reason it wasn't kept in a place a child could not get into it? Could the child have lived if her mother found her in a reasonable amount of time and gotten her medical help?
The facts of this case sound like gross neglect by a parent to me, neglect so extreme that it lead to a child's death. That's felony murder. Which would be homicide, not "unknown," as Choi's amendment indicates. So even this "correction" is questionable. Sure, it's not as outright laughable as "suicide," but "unknown"? Reportedly because Choi admits she can't tell whether the child took the drug intentionally or not? This was a child, not an adult, who overdosed on a controlled, dangerous drug to which she never should have had access. Eleven-year olds on their own cannot just pick up methadone at 7-11 with a pack of bubble-gum and a Sprite, nor would they have the first clue what to do with it unless someone has shown them. This reeks of foul play, not "suicide" OR "unknown." But hey, that's just the opinion of someone with 18 years experience in criminal law who hasn't surrendered common sense to the determinations of a medical examiner's office that has made a laughing stock out of our entire State.
Media interviews with this child's other relatives indicate she was not suicidal. So how, in God's name, did Dr. Chai Choi list "suicide" as the official manner of death from December of last year until September 28th of this year? Oh - because that paragon of credibility - the same mother who didn't know her own daughter was dead under her own roof for days and who responding offers described as "mentally disturbed" - said so. It was literally by relying on a statement made at a crime scene by a mentally disturbed mother who didn't call the police until her daughter was decomposing that Dr. Choi rubber-stamped "suicide" on the death certificate and called it good.
The initial suicide determination, which stood for nine months, is a perfect illustration of exactly how far afield our M.E.'s Office lands when it comes to accuracy, thoroughness, and even basic competence. One can only hope the correction in this case will lead to corrections in the multitude of other incorrect manner of death determinations by the Oklahoma M.E.'s Office, many of which are featured on Justice For The Dead, and are just as ridiculous as calling a non-suicidal child's death by acute methadone intoxication a suicide. The abject horror that a state pathologist would classify this child's death a suicide to begin with should be cause for immediate termination, and warrant further scrutiny into every other case called into question.
And many, many other cases have been called into question. For instance, if our M.E.'s Office is to be believed, we have a strange epidemic in Oklahoma of people beating themselves up before they take their own lives. This is particularly true of women in abusive relationships, it seems. Their abusers report, full of wonder at "discovering" their dead significant others, that "they must have killed themselves!" Gasp for effect, shed a few crocodile tears, wring hands, repeat. This magic litany has been allowing perpetrators to get away with murder in Oklahoma for at least a decade, because our M.E.'s Office has demonstrated a shocking pattern and practice of taking ridiculous assertions at face value and stamping the deaths "suicide" without even conducting an autopsy in most cases.
The no-autopsy-close-as-suicide merry-go-round helps the M.E.'s Office because autopsies are expensive, and the Agency is constantly bellyaching that it is OH so broke. Not too broke to pay a TV personality $70,000.00 a year plus benefits to be their PR person so the public doesn't actually get to see and hear the pathetic excuse for pathologists we have working in that Agency, but hey, it's only taxpayer money after all. It also saves said pathologists the time and effort of justifying their opinions in Court were someone to be prosecuted for murder. For every autopsy that isn't performed and every murder charge that isn't filed, that's one less case the M.E.'s Office has to worry about us pesky lawyers having double-checked by credible, independent pathologists and figuring out that for most part, this Agency may as well be pulling cause and manner of death determinations out of a crystal ball.
This is shameful, it is wrong, and it WILL stop with the passage of the Chanda Turner Reform Bill.
With Christmas only a few days away, my wish for all the families on Justice For The Dead is that we get this M.E.'s Office REFORMED in the next legislative session. One can only imagine the heartache of going through the holidays knowing your child, or daughter, or brother or sister will be forever absent. Susan Murphy-Milano and others often refer to this as "the empty chair," the chair that will never again be occupied by someone who was loved and cherished. The added tragedy in Oklahoma is that these family members have not only lost their loved ones to suspicious and/or violent deaths, but they know their murderers are walking around free. And the final insult is that our callous and inept M.E.'s office has tainted the memory of their deceased - has victimized the dead for a second time - by wrongly labeling them for all the world as someone who chose to leave us when instead, in many cases, the victims actually fought for their lives.
This Christmas season, as classics like A Christmas Carol play in livingrooms across our State, I wonder if Justice For The Dead didn't evolve as a sort of ghost of Christmas past, present and future for the Oklahoma M.E.'s Office. The ghost of Christmas past takes us on a tour through JFTD, visiting the haunting faces and stories presented of real Oklahomans wronged by this Agency. The ghost of Christmas present is The Chanda Turner Reform Bill: the vehicle by which we hope this Agency will be reformed and once again develop a sense of responsiblity and respectability when dealing with our dead. The ghost of Christmas Yet To Come was intended by Dickens to scare Scrooge into changing his ways and thereby changing "these shadows of what may be." The shadows of what may be for this Agency are daunting. Without Reform, the future certainly looks bleak.
I think if I were part of the M.E.'s Office, I would feel haunted by the multitude of faces of the people this Agency has wronged, and pretty awed by the perserverence of friends and families who refuse to accept nonsensical rulings without a fight. The M.E.'s Office tragically underestimated the love of parents for their children, wives for their husbands, children for their parents, and even friends for those they cared about. In fact, the biggest thing this Agency lost along the way - along with its reputation, national accreditation, and credibility - was the knowledge that it doesn't simply deal with "dead bodies." While the body on the slab might not be able to argue with a slanderous "suicide" or other incorrect determination that flies in the face of evidence and common sense, that "body" was a person who meant the world to their family, friends and loved ones. And through their families, friends and loved ones, the deceased in Oklahoma will continue to haunt this Agency until it is fixed and the truth prevails.
The new year will reveal whether the M.E.'s Office will continue down it's path of self-destruction right into the "shadows of what may be," or if 2011 will bring a Reformed M.E.'s Office, thanks to Senators like Bryce Marlatt (who is drafting The Chanda Turner Reform Bill as I type). One can only hope it is the latter, and that the transformation is as complete and permanent as Scrooge's was.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all ... and much love and assurance to the empty chairs at the holiday tables that we will continue to fight for you until truth and justice prevail.