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.