Tuesday, December 21, 2010

An M.E. Carol Worthy of Dickens

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.


Sunday, November 7, 2010


      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 d
      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 
    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 DevineyCarissa 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:
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.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Will Our ME's Office Frustrate the New Project for Identifying Remains of Missing Persons? Without Reform, You Can Bet On It.

Just this past Friday, in this Press Release, the OSBI reported it is teaming up with the Medical Examiner's Office and DOC "to resolve decades of missing and unidentified person cases" by partnering with the University of North Texas Center for Human Identification (UNTCHI) and with the support of the National Missing & Unidentified Person System (NamUs), which are both funded by the National Institute of Justice, allowing all resources to be provided throughout the state at no cost.

This is a commendable project, free to boot! Hopefully people with missing loved ones will find some answers.  As administrator of Justice for the Dead (JFTD), however, I have very real concerns regarding the Medical Examiner's Office role in the Project. One case featured on JFTD is that of Jimmy McCullough.  You can read Jimmy's story by clicking HERE.  Jimmy's remains were found 9 months after he went missing in 2005.  In March of 2006 the remains went to the ME's Office, where they were misplaced for almost two (2) years.  All the while representatives of the ME's Office were telling Jimmy's mother, Violet, that they had been sent to Texas for DNA identification.  Due to the disorganization and incompetence of the ME's Office, Jimmy did not have a death certificate until May of 2009 - over three years after the ME's Office took possession of his remains. And long after there was any hope of a successful murder investigation.

Ironically, in May of 2009, the same month Jimmy McCullough's family finally got their delayed death certificate, this ARTICLE ran in the Tulsa World.  In the article, the ME Spokesperson, Cherokee Ballard, says they have 125 unidentified human remains and: "'...the office is cataloging all unidentified remains and establishing a relationship with the Center for Human Identification to do DNA analysis on the remains and enter the profiles into a national database.'" Then Ballard added, "...Medical Examiner's Office officials decided that 'they needed to look at ways to be better organized, and that was one area.'"

Yes. But shouldn't cataloguing remains and getting organized been thought of long before May of 2009?

Apparently so, because two months later, in July of 2009, the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) stripped the Oklahoma ME's Office of national accreditation, in part due to mishandling of evidence, cross-contamination, and inadequate policies and procedures. The entire NAME report is linked on JFTD.  Shortly thereafter, a GRAND JURY investigation accused the Agency's administrators of "either willful blindness or gross incompetence," criticized the agency for its lack of internal policies, procedures and protocols, and cited problems with the agency's handling of evidence and personal property, including: not securing valuables, not treating items of evidentiary value as evidence, instances where no precautions were taken to prevent cross-contamination of evidence, and situations where evidence was even stored next to trash receptacles. 

Former A.G. Drew Edmondson concluded, "...this type of lax attention to the handling and processing of evidence raises serious concerns and likely has put criminal cases at risk."

Fast forward to today - October 31, 2010.  As of today, the office remains unaccredited and without rudimentary policies and procedures.  They have been sued for producing shoddy work, criminal charges have been filed against employees, they have had no less than five chiefs in the past year, one of whom was not even a doctor, they're party to a Wrongful Termination suit by former Chief Trant (behind whom the JFTD families continue to stand as he was attempting to report wrongdoing when he was terminated), they admit publicly that it's a "common occurrence" for them to stack bodies on top of each other and on the ground (NEWS 9) - which is not only a gross cross-contamination issue, but an alarming example of disrespecting our dead.  And if there are 200 remains there now, they clearly did not "catalogue" unidentified remains and get them to UNT or even get more organized as Ballard promised they would in her May 2009 statement to the Tulsa World.   

This is standard practice for our ME's Office - when questioned they are always "in the process of coming up with policies" to address whatever disaster just went public.  The latest one - just last week - was that they failed to secure controlled drugs like morphine on the premises, which were being stolen by at least one former employee from whom they neglected to retrieve a key-card.  At learning that controlled drugs were not secured, and at least one person with access to the ME's Office had a dope habit bad enough to be stealing drugs from the deceased, the JFTD families made a public outcry demanding drug testing for all employees.

Again, in response to media questioning, the stock answer of "we don't have a drug testing policy for employees in place" surfaced.  Which begs the question - when you have already lost national accreditation for not having proper policies and procedures, and a multicounty grand jury charges you with "gross incomptence," would it not be prudent to have a basic drug and alcohol testing policy in place? My middle-schooler can't even play sports without being drug tested - but an office that handles the most important cases there are, which is in this much disarray, surrounded constantly by scandal on our tax-payer dime, can get away with "we just don't have that policy"?  And why are controlled dangerous drugs like morphine easily accessible to anyone inside the agency - where is the basic policy of securing controlled drugs in say, oh I don't know, a secure evidence locker or property room?!  And policy or no policy, one would think employees with nothing to hide would simply have volunteered to submit to drug and alcohol testing, if only to reassure Oklahoma families. Only not one did.

As the JFTD administrator, I have seen homicide cases from all across the State bungled by small town law enforcement that could have been picked up and solved by either a multi-county grand jury or Cold Case Organizations IF - and this is key - IF our ME's Office had qualified professionals properly investigating the deaths independently, as required by State statute. Because the ME's Office has hobbled along on it's path of self-destruction, this has not happened.  And bungled cases continue to just get rubber stamped by a State-wide ME's Office that fails to independently investigate suspicious, violent deaths, and can't even keep evidence properly catalogued or operate above the very low bar of "gross incompetence." 

Without fixing our ME's Office, justice will continue to be denied many Oklahoma families despite the hope this new Project for identifying the missing gives them.  Obviously all remains will go through that agency.  Until the ME's Office is overhauled and becomes functional (i.e. properly catalogues evidence, stops cross-contaminating evidence, operates without "willful blindess or gross incompetence," performs autopsies on all suspicious, violent deaths) it will continue to frustrate all our efforts to find answers and justice for Oklahoma's missing and deceased, as well as their loved ones.  The families on JFTD, and all Oklahomans, need to be able to count on an Agency like the ME's Office to function properly.

If law enforcement wants real progress, they need to join the JFTD families and call for reform of this Agency as well.  Otherwise, they will experience first-hand the weak link in our system with which the JFTD families are only too familiar. And on that note, I leave you with this video:
Editor of Daily Oklahoman Speaks on ME's Office.

Monday, October 18, 2010


Families from across the State continue to contact http://www.justiceforthedead.com/ with horror stories about their experiences with the State Medical Examiner's Office, and national media is getting more involved in the reality of small-town corruption with the arrival of Susan Murphy-Milano in Oklahoma. 

The bottom line is that there is a trifecta in this State that is a breeding ground for corruption, cover-ups, and even less onerously, simple mistakes that do not get corrected because of a "never admit we're wrong" mentality.  The trifecta is this: (1) corrupt small-town law enforcement; (2) an ineffectual M.E.'s Office tied into the good ole' boy loop, using "investigators" who hobnob with their buddies at crime scenes, have very little training with which to make any kind of independent assessment, and close cases via "remote sign-outs" without trained forensic pathologists (i.e. a doctor) ever seeing a body; and (3) OSBI backing up small town law enforcement rather than investigating them for wrong-doing (Garvin County is a prime example of this) because unsolved cases hurt the statistics they use to make themselves look good and get more funding.  If Dante were alive today, he could write a sequel to The Inferno based on this astounding Oklahoma model.
One of the many reform measures the Chanda Turner Reform Bill seeks to implement is to have a completely independent Medical Examiner's Office.  Who, the honest citizen might ask, could possibly be against this?  The answer: those seeking to merge the OSBI and the ME's Office.  This marriage has been a work in progress for years.  The courtship has been happening right under our noses, with Dewade Langley leaving his post as head of OSBI to head the new multi-million dollar Forensics Facility at UCO - a position he lobbied to get.  Meanwhile, Tom Jordan left the OSBI for the position he lobbied to get in the M.E.'s Office.  Did Tom Jordan quit his post at the ME's Office under the pressure of the Justice for the Dead families raising hell at the idea of a non-physician running the show at the medical examiner's office? We hope that had something to do with it.  It didn't solve the problem, though. 

OSBI is still part of the ME's Board.  You know, the people who fired Dr. Trant (the former Chief who made the tragic mistake of trying to report wrongdoing at the ME's Office and now has a whistleblower suit pending against them).  The same Board who brought on former OSBI Agent Tom Jordan as Chief Operating Officer, when he's not even a doctor and could literaly do nothing to help the Justice for the Dead Families get relief.  The same people who then offered the job of Interim Chief to Dr. Sibley, who was accused of sexual misconduct at the Tulsa Office, and who left his position in Arizona after going to trial there for similar scandalous accusations.  And now, Dr. Keen, also from Arizona, who apparently sees nothing wrong with transporting bodies 100s of miles in the back of his pick-up truck, tied down with bungee cords, but takes offense when people call him "kooky."  I guess he's a good fit for an ME's Office that stacks it's bodies on the ground like litter, but only if nothing changes.  And Justice for the Dead is NOT content with that.  We have almost 5,000 signatures demanding that something changes.

So let's start asking hard questions.  Who's funding this OSBI/ME "marriage?" Who stands to benefit most from it?  Because I can tell you, it's not the citizens of the State of Oklahoma.  Big money is being thrown into this facility, and we would like to know who's throwing it, and which legislators' campaigns they are also donating to.

The OSBI gets millions of dollars in federal monies - i.e. grants. Statistics play a big part in this.  How much better could the OSBI's statistics get with the ME's Office in their back pocket? Not just unofficially in their back pocket, like they already are, but all the way behind closed doors, in bed together, so there can be a real meeting of the minds between these two "powerhouses" as to how cases should be classified (homicide, suicide, accident) and what the evidence "shows."  It will be next to impossible for family members to challenge their findings when they make no sense, when they know something has been missed, or critical witnesses not spoken with, or a suspect with connections to law enforcement has gotten away with murder. But if the OSBI says something happened one way, and their very own personal M.E.'s Office backs them, that sure makes them look competent and right.  Right?  Yeah. Right.

In fact, the OSBI was behind a proposed new law that would have made autopsy reports SECRET. Thankfully the Bill was defeated, but it managed to pass in the Senate, and this should alarm all Oklahoma citizens.  In complete secrecy, the multitude of mistakes, errors and omissions constantly made by this M.E.'s Office (see www.justiceforthedead.com) would be hidden from public view, and the voices of all aggrieved family members would be silenced as effectively as the voices of their deceased loved ones.  This is an unconscionable state of affairs in a supposedly free country, one in which our elected officials are supposed answer to us in matters relating to tax funded public agencies, not keep secrets from us.  

When the M.E.'s Office can hide behind the skirt of the OSBI, and vice versa, we are all in trouble.  The public must not be kept in the dark about what is happening on cases that affect our very lives and the memories of our loved ones.  It is our tax money, in part, that runs these Agencies, and we deserve answers.  An OSBI/ME merger will do nothing to restore public confidence in these two agencies, and it must be stopped.   

Moreover, a requirement of being a nationally accredited medical examiner's office is independence from law enforcement.  Merging the M.E.'s Office with the OSBI would mean the national accreditation the Agency already lost in July of 2009 would  be forever lost.  No one, and I repeat NO ONE, with the best interests of Oklahoma's citizens at heart, would want such a result. 

Please visit http://www.justiceforthedead.com/ to support the Chanda Turner Reform Bill, and contact your State Senators and House Reps telling them you are against an OSBI/ME Merger and why.

Sunday, October 17, 2010


       Edmund Burke wrote, "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing."
       As we continue to shed light on how broken the Oklahoma State Medical Examiner's Office is, and how this is devastating families across the State, we send out a plea to our State Legislature: do not sit by and do nothing.
       Joe Turner said it best in Friday's news conference: "This isn't just us.  This could be anybody.  It could be your child, your loved one."  He said that against the backdrop of families wronged by the Medical Examiner's Office who came to speak, from Guymon to Paul's Valley to Oklahoma City to McAlister, some of whom drove hundreds of miles to attend a Friday afternoon press conference and tell their horror stories.
       People watching these stories who think this can't happen to them need to think again.  Under Oklahoma law, if you or someone you love dies in a violent, unnatural or suspicious manner, or an unattended death, you have no choice but to accept whatever bizarre ruling the ME's Office makes about your loved one's death.  This will affect everything from whether a murderer gets prosecuted to whether you get life insurance benefits.  And until the legislature REFORMS the laws governing the ME's Office, there is no legal mechanism in place to hold the ME's Office accountable, or to present evidence contrary to a mistaken ruling and make them fix it.
          I am livid at the ME's Office stock reply to each new breaking story, which is always something along the lines of: "We will be happy to look at any new evidence the families provide." This is a crock and a lie.
         The family of Chanda Turner watched their daughter's body get dug up out of the ground for an autopsy that should have happened in the first place but the ME's Office refused.  Ten years later, the family got an autopsy pursuant to Court Order,  which was performed AT the ME's Office by their own CHIEF, and both doctors present at that autopsy ruled the death a homicide. Yet almost a year later, the death certificate remains unchanged.  If THIS isn't sufficient "NEW EVIDENCEto have Chanda's incorrect manner of death ruling changed from suicide to homicide, nothing is.  And that's the bottom line: NOTHING IS.
        Kathy Young learned this the hard way.  When her son died from a lethal prescription medication, she was shocked to discover the ME's Office had the wrong medications listed, despite the body being transported with the very prescription bottles that listed exactly what he had taken.  She fought their erroneous cause of death determination and was told that the toxicologist on the case disagreed with it, as did the majority of other pathologists in the ME's Office.  But despite this, her son's death certificate remains unchanged. Despite her hiring a lawyer to have it corrected and presenting "new evidence" (if that's what you'd call making them look at the evidence already in their possession that they'd mislabeled). And yet, nothing changed.  
         Lee Ely's husband of 35 years, a gunsmith, died while working on a broken pistol.  An "investigator" from the ME's Office arrived and spent approximately 30 minutes at the residence before telling Lee her husband committed suicide.  The "investigator" refused to listen when Lee explained that the gun was broken and he had been trying to repair it.  She refused to transport his body to the ME's Office for autopsy.  In 30 minutes, a young, poorly trained "investigator" who had never met Truman Ely robbed him of his legacy and slandered his memory by labeling him a suicide.  The family hired a lawyer and presented affidavit upon affidavit prepared by Truman's friends and family that he was not depressed, he was not mentally ill, he was happily living out his retirement with his wife and would have never killed himself.  This was not sufficient "NEW EVIDENCE" to correct the "suicide" label, and Truman Ely's legacy remains tarnished by an ME's Office that WILL NOT correct mistakes, no matter what they say about being "happy" to consider "new evidence."  It is a bald-faced lie they hide behind, knowing the current law provides these families no legal mechanism to go over their heads and get anything corrected.
        These and many other stories of families who have tried to reason with the ME's Office and have mistakes corrected appear on http://www.justiceforthedead.com/.  In each case, the ME's Office WILL NOT correct its mistakes.  In the one and only case we are aware of, that of Sheila Deviney, the ME's Office belatedly changed a ruling of "accidental death" to "homicide," but only after the murder case grew cold and evidence was destroyed.  Meaning Sheila Deviney's murderer got away with it due to the staggering incompetence and stubborness of our ME's Office.  Now the ME's Office is threatening to destroy the tissue samples in this homicide case!  This is the same office that lost its National Accreditation last year due to insufficiently trained pathologists and evidence cross-contamination, to name a few violations (the entire report stripping the Oklahoma State ME's Office of National Accreditation can be read on http://www.justiceforthedead.com/). 
       So now the ME's Office limps along, unaccredited, and handles the bodies of our deceased loved ones in atrocious conditions, including stacking bodies on the ground like they are nothing but so much trash.
        The most important cases - those where human life has been lost - are all the ME's Office deals with.  If it wasn't an important case, involving a death that needs questions answered, it wouldn't be there.  Oklahoma citizens have no choice but to end up there if the death falls under the statutory guidelines. And this MUST be changed.
        We will no longer stand for Oklahoma's most important cases being funneled to our most broken Agency. 
        To the Oklahoma State Legislature: you created this monster.  Only you can fix it.  We have nearly 5,000 signatures on our PETITION demanding REFORM of the ME's Office.  The language we want written into the new law is on the Petition.  We want the ME's Office to be independent.  We want them to receive sufficient funding to handle our deceased loved ones with the respect the dead deserve.  We want the bodies looked at by qualified pathologists, and a Chief appointed who does not have a sketchy past.  We want the Board Members appointed by someone to whom they will be held accountable for their decisions.  We want a way to appeal cause/manner of death determinations with credible evidence.  The current system provides Oklahoma citizens NONE of this, and we have had enough.  This has gone on long enough. 
      We are tired of you sitting by and doing nothing. 
       FIX THIS NOW.  PLEASE.  SIGN THE CHANDA TURNER REFORM BILL INTO LAW and give these families, and all Oklahomans whose loved ones end up in the ME's Office, justice for their dead.

Copies of the Petition can be printed off  at http://www.justiceforthedead.com/.  

Friday, October 15, 2010

Welcoming Susan Murphy-Milano to Oklahoma

With the arrival of a nationally-known author, media personality and activist, we begin the process of shedding more light on some of Oklahoma's darkest secrets.  For years, families have struggled in this State with a "good ole boy" system that delivered not justice, but cold justice.
Having practiced criminal law and worked on homicides in Oklahoma County for years, I was aware that we had a growing problem with our State Medical Examiner's Office. What I did not know until I met Joe and Donna Turner in September of 2009 was how the ME's Office's incompetence, stubborness and unwillingness to do its job has allowed corruption to thrive with law enforcement in smaller counties.
When a murder is covered up, or inadequately investigated, and an erroneous cause/manner of death determination is made by a good ole' boy who is NOT a physician, the ME's Office should NOT turn a blind eye and rubber stamp that determination.
The Turners fought for a decade to have an autopsy on their daughter, who was shot to death in July of 2000 at her home in Garvin County.  If this had happened in Oklahoma County, the man who would have been the primary suspect, her live-in boyfriend, would have been detained and questioned.  The crime scene would have been processed.  Authorities would have noted several problems with his story: he claimed he found her dead outside on the back porch, yet EMTs reported they overheard him and his father saying "she was talking after she got shot."  He claimed he moved her from the porch to the yard and did not re-enter the house before driving to his father's home for "help."  Authorities may have wondered why he did not call police immediately, and what exactly he and his father did at the crime scene for almost an hour before 911 was called.  Authorities may have thought it incriminating that although he claimed he did not re-enter the house after moving Chanda's supposedly dead body to the lawn, there was blood throughout the house, and evidence of a clean-up in the master bedroom, including missing sheets and a bottle of cleaning solution on the floor next to the bed.  Authorities may have pressed the boyfriend to explain how he did not hear a gunshot if in fact Chanda actually shot herself, and how blood got on the mattress he was supposedly sleeping on, and why he changed clothes before they got there, and demanded an explanation as to why he had fresh scratches on his arms that night.  Authorities may also have been alerted to foul play when Chanda's body told them what she could not in death: covered in bruises, from legs to arms to shoulders, her body screamed: I FOUGHT FOR MY LIFE.  Suicide? This crime scene? Not on your life.
Unfortunately, the Garvin County Sheriff's office found none of this strange and, in fact, permitted the live-in boyfriend to have his father, attorney step-father, and friends inside the crime scene while they "processed" it.  I imagine this went something along the lines of having coffee with a murder suspect and his family, with the Turners' dead daughter laying outside, covered in blood. 
Everyone knows everyone in this small town, yet no one had the decency to even pick up a phone and call Chanda's parents to tell them she was dead.
Had GCSO spent any time at all time processing the body, or had any training whatsoever in blood spatter, they may have been alterted to foul play by the blood pattern on Chanda's face and body.  The blood ran upward, not downward as it should have if she had shot herself and slumped over to die.  Experts who have reviewed the crime scene photos agree that her body was in several different positions during the "event," none of which are consistent with suicide.  The blood spatter is consistent with her being shot, then being bundled (remember the missing sheets?) and moved.
However, GCSO treated the death a suicide, and the ME's Office has a policy of not autopsying "suicides."  So the lie perpetuated against Chanda Turner was rubber-stamped, and insult was added to injury.  The worse crime one human being can commit against another is murder.  The worst insult that can be added to that injury is painting the murder a suicide.  Chanda was not only robbed of her life, but her memory was stained irreparably.  And it is in perpetuating the lie like this, and letting GCSO get away with it, where the ME's Office is at fault.
Finally in December 2009, the Turners got a Court Order to have their daughter exhumed and a long-overdue autopsy performed.  Both doctors at the autopsy ruled the death a homicide.  Consistently with what the EMTs originally reported, the gunshot to her chest was not immediately fatal.  This explains the delay in notifying police.  Chanda was literally left to die, and in my opinion, based on the evidence, the crime scene was manipulated and staged (poorly) to look like a suicide.  The poor staging may have been enough for Barney and Fife down in Garvin County, but it would not have fooled a competent pathologist.  Even though it took 10 years, two competent pathologists ruled the death a homicide.  The truth was finally official.  But not for long.
Then politics, scandal and corruption in the ME's Office led to a firing of the Chief who had conducted the autopsy, and Chanda's case being tossed around like a hot potato to pathologists who were not at the autopsy and could not even make out the autopsy notes.  To this day, the death certificate remains unchanged.  And justice for Chanda Turner, despite the evidence, despite being dug up a decade after being laid to rest for an autopsy she should have had to begin with, despite everything remains a murder victim with no justice and with the added insult of a lie permeating her memory.
We hope with the help of people like Susan Murphy-Milano, as awareness increases of the many, many other cases bothed by authorities and the Oklahoma ME's Office, the truth will come to light and families will see justice for their deceased loved ones.
For more on Chanda Turner's case, and other cases across the State involving the Medical Examiner's Office, please visit http://www.justiceforthedead.com/.
Until that time, we continue to fight to give these families a voice.  For that, we are very grateful to Ms. Murphy-Milano for coming to Oklahoma and joining us in our struggle.