TOPICS > Science

Frontline: U.S. Needs More Competent Pathologists for Autopsies

February 1, 2011 at 5:37 PM EDT
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Frontline explores the patchwork system of death investigations in the U.S. Varying greatly from the high-tech operations depicted in popular crime shows, these investigations often lack uniform standards, oversight and trained doctors. Watch a preview of an episode airing Tuesday on many PBS stations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight: the nationwide shortage of competent pathologists to perform autopsies and determine the cause of death. That’s the subject of tonight’s edition of Frontline.

We have an excerpt. The correspondent is Lowell Bergman.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Tim Brown graduated from a technical college and then became a building contractor in Marlboro County, S.C.

TIM BROWN, coroner, Marlboro County, S.C.: I would like to have an inspection or something for a septic tank.

LOWELL BERGMAN: He is also the elected coroner, which means when someone dies unexpectedly, he decides how it happened.

There was a time when the coroner was blind, right?

TIM BROWN: Yes, sir. That — that happened here in Marlboro County. We had Mr. Francis Stanton. He was a blind gentleman.

LOWELL BERGMAN: He was there for what, 40-some years?

TIM BROWN: You know, I don’t really know, but he’d been there for a long time, yes, sir.

LOWELL BERGMAN: So, you got elected and you just sort of, if you will, dove into the subject?

TIM BROWN: Yes, sir. That’s correct, off the deep end.

I have been elected seven times.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Coroner Brown would find himself in the national spotlight after he got a phone call that a body had been found near the state line.

And the body was found over there?

TIM BROWN: Yes, sir, somewhere right in that area, right there. You see where that old log is across?


TIM BROWN: And we didn’t find any identification. We didn’t find a wallet. We didn’t find a watch, a ring, a necklace.


TIM BROWN: Nothing, no, sir.

LOWELL BERGMAN: If the body had been found just a few feet away, the investigation would have been handled by a fully equipped state medical examiner’s office in North Carolina. But the body turned up in South Carolina, so Coroner Brown was in charge.

Like most coroners, Brown does not do autopsies. He had to ship the decomposing body to a private forensic pathologist more than 100 miles away.

DR. JOEL SEXTON, forensic pathologist: The autopsy was done outdoors in a old garage behind the hospital. It was sometimes very hot, particularly this time of year, like in August. And recognize that, once a body starts decomposing, it’s almost accelerated with heat.

LOWELL BERGMAN: So, you — you did this autopsy in the garage.

DR. JOEL SEXTON: Correct. And then we sent the body back to Tim Brown.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Based on that autopsy, Brown declared the death a homicide. But he faced a dilemma. He did not have a refrigerator in which to store the decomposing body of the unknown victim. And he didn’t have the funds to bury the man. And so he had the remains cremated.

CONNIE CHUNG, CBS Evening News: A still developing story here tonight about the father of basketball star Michael Jordan. James Jordan has been missing now for three weeks.

TIM BROWN: A few days after I elected to cremate the body, I was watching the CBS Evening News. The father of Michael Jordan was a missing person, and I thought, “Well, that might be my John Doe.”


TIM BROWN: Might be — could be. I think I said, “That might be my man.”

LOWELL BERGMAN: Dental records confirmed that the body Tim Brown found was, in fact, Michael Jordan’s father.

CONNIE CHUNG: … will obviously complicate the FBI’s investigation.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Two men were ultimately convicted of the murder, but the Jordan family was left with only ashes to bury, leading to a media outcry that Coroner Brown should not have cremated the body.

LOWELL BERGMAN: You made do with the resources that you had?

TIM BROWN: I did, yes, sir. And I — and I still believe that the decision I made was a professional decision.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Many people say, because of this incident, things have changed.

TIM BROWN: Well, it’s directly attributed to this situation. There’s no doubt about that.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Have the qualifications changed for being a coroner?

TIM BROWN: You know, I really can’t speak to that, because I’ve kind of been grandfathered in.

LOWELL BERGMAN: Today, coroners in South Carolina have limited access to a refrigeration unit. And there’s a new requirement to be a coroner: You have to have a high-school diploma.

JEFFREY BROWN: “Post Mortem” is a collaboration of Frontline, NPR, ProPublica and the Investigative Reporting Program at U.C. Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. It airs tonight on most PBS stations.