NPRProPublica
Post Mortem
Death Investigation in America

Interview Dr. Frank Minyard

“The coroner adds a little bit of semblance and order to a chaotic society by saying what happened to this person…”

[Are] you the longest serving elected coroner in America?

I don't know about that, but in Louisiana that's true. And in New Orleans I am the longest serving elected official in New Orleans. ...

And basically your job is what? To determine the cause of death? Sign death certificates?

Louisiana, the coroner is a little different than around the country. We operate under the Napoleonic Code of law. ... The coroner has four duties. The first duty is what every coroner has: investigation of death, questionable deaths. The second duty is to examine mental patients, and if they need to be committed, we have psychiatrists who are on my staff who commit them. Third is we examine rape victims. Fourth, we're responsible for the health care of the prisoners here in our city prison.

Frank Minyard

Known as "Dr. Jazz," Minyard is a trumpet-playing former obstetrician who has been elected coroner of New Orleans 10 times -- making him the longest serving big city coroner in America. Minyard compares the role of a coroner to a community doctor -- he handles "the ancillary discussions around a death that you can't teach" and is the face of public health threats in the community. Here he responds to criticism that his office is particularly close to law enforcement. "The truth is what we peddle," he says. "We don't care who wins and who loses." This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted June 17, 2010.

Now, those have changed a little bit under my jurisdiction. In the beginning when I came here, I used to hold health visits to the prisoners three times a week -- sick call, if you will, like I did in the Navy. The guys would come in, and we would treat them. ...

But as time got on, we had more prisoners, the sheriff was able to get more money; he was able to hire his own physicians. So today I am not in charge anymore, but I kind of make recommendations about their health care, and I make periodic visits through the infirmary over there. And we work very hard on the psychiatric end of prison health care, because that is a big, big problem.

So you're the elected coroner?

Yes.

And you've been elected how many times now?

Ten.

Ten times.

Ten four-year terms. ...

You're a politician.

Oh, don't call me a politician. I don't think I'm a politician. I'm more of a community servant. I look upon myself as someone who loves his community, and I serve it the best way with the gifts that God has given me. And this job as coroner is part of that. ...

I don't feel like I'm a politician. I don't go to political things. I don't socialize with politicians.

Do you take campaign contributions?

Very, very little. This past time was almost nothing. I have some friends who send me some contributions. But I have to pay myself, too, because you can't get all contributions without giving up something. So that has never been a problem, because I can pay, and also I have some friends who help out. ...

Now, in Louisiana, you don't have to be a doctor, right, to be the coroner?

There's two states in the union that say you don't have to be a doctor. One's Louisiana, and one's Illinois. In Louisiana, the law reads that if no doctor will take the job, then a layman can become coroner if he's elected. And we have in this state about five laymen who are coroners. The rest are all physicians.

But you're not a forensic pathologist.

No, no. No, I was in OB/GYN practice before I became coroner. ... I have five forensic pathologists who work for me.

You employ them.

Yeah.

Is Paul McGarry still here?

No.

Because he was here when I was here last.

Yeah, yeah. He's gone on. He lives in Mississippi, and he's helping them over there. He's doing their autopsies, and the travel back and forth was too much. …

You determine the cause of death based on the input from your forensic pathologists and others.

Yes.

So give us an idea. What are the different causes of death that are open to you? What are the alternatives?

You're confusing it with the classification of the death. The cause of death, everything's open. Classifications, there's only five: natural death, homicide, suicide, accident or undetermined. Those are the five classifications of the death, the circumstances in which it happened. ...

The pathologist determines the cause. They give it to me, and I determine the classification.

And if it's a homicide, that becomes the classification?

Yeah.

[Do you then] automatically notify the police?

Yeah. Well, yeah. Oh, yeah. They usually know about it before.

Because they're usually in --

Involved. Yeah. They go to a house, and they see a body with a hole in it, you know.

In your tenure as coroner, what have been the most difficult moments for you? Or has there been a most difficult moment?

I'd say handling Katrina and the aftermath of Katrina was a difficult time, ... because that involved so many people -- at least 1,000 from the New Orleans area here in St. Bernard [Parish and] New Orleans. And the fact that we had 1,500 all told for the state, and we took care of all of them. And that was very, very difficult, trying to find their relatives; trying to identify who this patient is; finding the relatives. And there were just so many little side things about Katrina, about missing people. So we ended up here in a warehouse with 80 remains from Katrina. ...

Forty of them were people we couldn't find their relatives or where they were supposed to be, and then 40 whom we couldn't identify with the rudimentary DNA tests that we did. We need more expensive-type DNA tests, which we haven't done yet because FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] hasn't given us the money yet to do it. ...

Let me ask you: One of the big issues that's pending because of this National Academy [of Sciences (NAS)] study is that its number one recommendation is to abolish coroners, particularly elected coroners, in that system. What's your reaction to that?

I think we need coroners in this country. You mentioned before [that] one coroner told you his qualification was that he finished high school. My position is that he don't even have to go to high school to be a good coroner, because being a good coroner involves a lot more than finding out a cause of death.

It involves identification of this person. It involves notification of next of kin of this person. It involves discussing what happened with the next of kin of this person. It involves a lot of human reaction. And I don't think that you can learn that in school, to have dignity not only for the dead but for the living who are trying to find out what happened to my loved one. ...

In larger coroners' offices, we employ medical examiners. You need medical examiners. You need a pathologist to tell you what went wrong, why this person died. ... But it's all the ancillary discussions around a death that you can't teach. You have to know how to handle people and people in distress. ...

To me, that's the important thing about coroner. And all this malarkey that you've been telling me about what the scientists say and all that kind of stuff, excuse me, but that's bullshit. ...

But what about those who say your primary function is to give a classification for death?

Yeah.

Right? That's your charge from the community.

Yeah. Right.

That's what legally you're supposed to do.

Mm-hmm.

And that a classification of death should be based on the best scientific medical investigation, other factors aside. Do you agree with that?

Yes. Oh, yes.

So why couldn't a scientist who specializes in that, a forensic pathologist, be the best person to make that classification as opposed to an elected official?

Yeah. I'm not saying they can't. No, I'm not saying they can't. But I'm just saying it's an individual thing. Now, if a filling station owner wants to be coroner of his little town because of the $100-a-month salary that he gets, that's wrong. He should raise his prices on tires and stuff. If a filling station owner wants to be coroner because he feels, either through past experience with the coroner's office or whatever, he feels that he could do a good task for his community, that's good; that's right.

And I feel that that's the way it should be done. It has to be with your involvement in your community. It has to be with your love of your fellow man. We don't have enough of that today. And I think making the practice of being the coroner an icebox thing, an ice cube thing, to be blunt, to me is the biggest problem.

We should try to make it so that people understand it, tell the truth, never tell a lie, you know, never. Tell the truth, but tell it in a way that is more acceptable. And again, you get back to bedside manner, which you cannot teach. Cannot teach bedside manner. It's something you either got it or you ain't got it.

The other big question which the report goes into is the perception of bias.

Bias?

That some in the community perceive that law enforcement has a greater influence over, let's say, the determination of a classification of death because by its very nature a coroner or death investigation office interacts with law enforcement regularly.

Yeah, we interact. But again, to that, I say, bullshit. The police has nothing to do with my classification. And we have had battles with the police and the district attorney, not the present one, but past DAs. Yeah, we have had problems with that, and we always come out on the palace of truth. You've got to keep that in the back of your mind: palace of truth.

We don't care who wins. We don't care if the district attorney wins, even though we're his witness. We don't care if the defense wins. We're never his witness.

You're never the defense witness?

Not in a criminal case. In a murder case, we're always the DA's witness.

Why is that? Why aren't you just the objective witness?

We are an objective witness. We are. The DA doesn't give us anything for being his witness. We don't even get a decent place to sit in the hall while they're waiting for us to go to trial. It's not air-conditioned, you know.

The point is, the truth is what we peddle. The truth is what we peddle. And we don't care who wins and who loses. We're the DA's case because that's the way the court's set up. The DA presents the case; we present the fact this guy died from a bullet wound, and that's it; we get cross-examined by the other side; and it's over, for us anyway. ...

You know there's been a long history where you've been accused of being biased on the side of the law enforcement --

Correct. Yes.

-- to the point that you had a friend who was an officer who ... was involved in one of the more famous incidents, ... Adolph Archie [who died in police custody after killing an officer].

Adolph Archie. ... In that case, my position was that Adolph Archie died from an allergic reaction to iodine that he was given on the X-ray table right before they were going to do a procedure. And written all over his medical chart from Angola [Louisiana State Penitentiary] and from Charity Hospital has "allergic to iodine." He got the iodine IV; he sat up, went back and hit the back of his head, and he died.

That created quite a furor. It brought [journalists] Hugh Downs and Mike Wallace. We brought in three world-renowned forensic pathologists to testify to our grand jury. We had a grand jury hearing. And the three of them all came up with different answers. One of them backed me -- allergic reaction. ... And of course the grand jury came back no true bill, [a grand jury's finding that there is no probable cause for determining that a crime was committed]. And to this day, there is no cause of death. ...

[What was the classification on the death certificate?]

Yeah. On the death certificate, I'm not sure. I haven't thought about that in a long time. But I know there is no cause of death. See, a death certificate you have one, two, three causes. And as far as a classification, I don't know what we classified it as. We probably --

Undetermined?

Probably undetermined.

So you see, people who would say you wound up getting the police an undetermined cause of death when he was in the custody of the police department --

Right. What's wrong with that?

-- in a very violent --

Yeah, but what's wrong with that if it's the truth?

Well, the guy was beaten heavily. You know, one testicle had to be removed --

But his trauma never caused his death. He had a fracture at the base of his skull, right here at the base, which he got when he fell back and hit the radiology table. ... But we still can't say that's what killed him. I asked the neurosurgeon, "Did that kill him?" He said no. And so, you know, we were stuck with that. And it's been 20 years I guess. ...

You're familiar with [the Henry Glover] case?

Very familiar with that case.

OK. What happened there? Because my understanding is that in reading this and some other clips before I came here about it is that there was no classification of death for years afterward.

By the way, there's still not.

There's still no classification --

On this case here. On Mr. Glover.

You haven't classified it?

I have not classified, because we don't know. What we got at St. Gabriel [temporary morgue] was a body bag full of bones. That's it. We didn't get a skull with a hole in it. We didn't get thoracic, chest situation with gunshot wounds in the bones. All we got was a bunch of burned-out bones.

And ashes.

And ashes. Now, we identified. We took the DNA and identified those ashes and bones as Mr. Glover. Now, cause of death we don't know. I would have guessed it would be fire. But what happened? Was he shot? Was he hit on the head? Did he shoot himself? Did he catch himself on fire? All of those kind of things, we can't say.

There's no way I can say that that is a homicide. There's no way that I can say anything other than what we examined. And my pathologist -- by the way, this is my pathologist talking now, because I never saw any of this, and what she says is that there's no way of telling how, why this man died.

When you make an investigation, you don't look at the totality of the situation?

Sure.

A burned-up body inside a burned-out car --

Well, to begin with --

-- behind a police station?

OK. Look at it that way. Now, look at it from my point of view. Here we are, isolated up there at St. Gabriel. We have 1,000 body bags just like that one that rolled in. There's nothing on the body bag that identifies where it came from. There's no tags saying how it got there. We never knew the body, that those bones came out of a car. We didn't know that.

Let me stop you for a second here, because in an article, a forensic pathologist named Kevin Whaley from Virginia who came down here as part of [DMORT, Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Teams], which was helping you out --

Yeah.

-- apparently he took possession of the remains when they came in, and he said: "My first reaction was that it was a homicide. When I heard he was found in a burned-out car, I thought that was a classic homicide scenario: You kill someone and burn the body to get rid of the evidence." And I think he said he found metal fragments when they X-rayed the bags.

One of the bones did have some metal fragments, which you will find when a body is burned in a car. You will find some metal fragments. I really can't talk any more about this because it's a case that's active now. And as far as anything else that we might have or bring up, we have to save that, you know, for the proper time.

So you understand I cannot comment on what he just said. I can't comment really on anything other than what I've told you. We have to let it go at that.

Is it possible you made a mistake?

What kind of mistake?

Well, the police say that they didn't investigate because there was no classification of the death, and so therefore they didn't investigate because it wasn't technically a homicide.

Right, right. Right.

So they're throwing it back at you.

Yeah, and my pathologist who handled that bag of bones. We went over it quite a few times. And that's my position. ...

And then we've heard about other cases: Raymond Robair, Gerald Arthur, [Kerry] Washington, Cayne Miceli, all questionable [deaths that occurred] in custody or in confrontation with the police, cases where there was no classification in many cases, or a classification that subsequently has been changed.

I'm not following you there.

Well, that's what people point to when they say that you're close to law enforcement; that because you're an elected official with some political dues to pay, you'll help law enforcement when they're in a jam.

Well, we help anybody who's in a jam, anybody, to a degree. But of course I wouldn't break the law helping people, that's for sure. But I don't see how you can say we're in bed with law enforcement, because these things -- we go back to the palace of truth again.

These things have a way of looking bad like you are reporting it, but those people you're talking about just now, I don't even know who they are. I've never heard of any of those names. Are they cops?

No, no. These were individuals. These are public-record cases. I guess what I'm trying to frame is representing the point of view that, as you know, you've been ... described as being close to law enforcement or biased by attorneys and by others.

That's a blanket statement. Now, I'm not aware of anybody accusing me of that. ...

You know Mary Howell, [a civil rights attorney in New Orleans,] right?

Oh, yeah. Definitely.

... What she says is that there's a consistent series of cases, many handled by Dr. McGarry, where second autopsies, second examinations showed that there was, in fact, a different cause of death than what he had.

Yeah.

In one case, he allegedly didn't look at half the body to see if there was any damage to half the body. And in another case he said there was drugs involved -- that is, apparent drugs involved -- and he didn't know that the body in fact had no addictive drugs in it once the toxicology came back and in fact that the perforations in the arm were due to the person being taken to the hospital.

Yeah.

And the list goes on. How long did he work for you?

He's been gone just a few months, two or three months. He'd been with me 30 years.

Thirty years?

Yeah. At least. At least 30 years.

I'm not aware of what she's talking about. I would hope if she could have, you know, evidence or another autopsy report --

She's got litigation pending, and other autopsies pending as well.

But she's never called me and told me anything like that. If she would have, I would have handled it.

But Dr. McGarry was a good doctor. Like I said, he had moved over to the coast, and that's where he's working, and he's helping the pathologist over there get their autopsies done. But heck no, I'm not aware of any impropriety. I'm not aware of any mistakes. ...

What she said is that you're dependent on what your forensic pathologists tell you.

Right.

You're dependent upon what the investigators or whoever goes out there at that scene tells you.

Right, right.

And the perception, she says, is that you believe what they're telling you. You don't question even after in the case of the various McGarry cases where there are second autopsies saying the opposite, or in a case of Glover where there was no classification for all these years, and somehow the feds discover that it's actually a homicide. The perception is that you're on the other side in your thinking and your orientation.

I have to believe what my pathologists say. I couldn't do this job if I didn't believe them, point-blank, 100 percent, no questions, because if I question them about some big-time decision, then they are not giving me what I need, and what I need to be 100 percent sure about everything they tell me.

So if I start questioning it, then I'm not getting that from them, and I would have to fire them. But McGarry never has given me a reason, you know, not to believe him. ...

In looking at the National Academy report and other things, ... it's a question of who do we trust in terms of the matter of a death investigation. Do we trust these coroners who in some cases are not even doctors? Do we trust the medical examiners who may be forensic pathologists but may, in fact, be using bad science, or there aren't standards really to hold them in check? And do we trust CSI and the image that gives us of where your profession is at?

I say yes to all of that. Just because television with CSI has situations that are unattainable by the average coroner's office or medical examiner's office, it doesn't mean that we should not listen to them. It gives us some hope and something to shoot for, some standard that is unattainable, but it's still out there. ...

I don't think we could [use] holograms, but I do think that we could do some of the things that I've seen on there. So I just don't write them off and say they're bad. They cause me trouble. Of course they do, but --

How do they cause you trouble?

Because people expect that on the death investigation of their loved one. And especially if you're trying to distinguish between homicide and suicide, sometime there's a very fine line of distinction between homicide and suicide. But sometimes people will come up with all of that, and we say, "Well, no, we didn't do that because that's unattainable here and whatnot."

Plus, now I say we don't have a lab. We've got to send our lab to St. Louis. Takes a month to get it back. And you really can't judge how I run this office with what's happened since Katrina. I mean, the problems were insurmountable. To begin with, I had 37 employees the day before Katrina. When they let me come back in here and on the road, I had five employees. I was the coroner on the road with five employees. We were able to get it up to nine. Now we have nine employees where we should have 36, 37.

Everybody is working three and four different jobs here at this office. We just don't have a clerk answering the phone. We have an anthropologist, whom I introduced you to do, who is a clerk, and she also is our typist. She answers the phone. She checks on information for finding out where people live and try to find where -- she's in charge of our DNA identification. I mean, she's got all kind of hats, and she makes $25,000 a year as a clerk working here. ...

You're not funded or have the facilities or the staff that you had before Katrina.

No.

Why not?

Oh! You want to get into that? Great. Put this on national television. I would love you to do that, because now we're in --

By the way, that's part of the report. The report is that there aren't enough forensic pathologists, etc.

Yes.

So why not? Quite frankly, the average person out there thinks, "Oh, when I die and if it's by someone else's hand, the coroner or the medical examiner, they're going to find out."

... One problem is the powers that be are satisfied with the services that we give. When the powers that be who control the pocketbook are satisfied with the services you give, you're not going to get change. You're going to keep the status quo, because they don't have to give you any more money because you're doing OK now. You're staying out of their hair. ...

Now, the other problem is -- and I want you to put this on the screen in big, bold letters -- dead people don't vote, period. Dead people don't vote. If dead people voted, you know, I'd be elected governor, president or something, which I don't want to be. No, in all seriousness, though, that --

In all seriousness, in some jurisdictions they do vote, but we'll leave that --

Yeah, right. In some of them, they do vote. But no, you see, that's the problem, because I am not political enough to know how to grease whatever it is you grease when you get political action done. I don't even know members on our city council. I've never met them. I know the new mayor because I was on his daddy's ticket when his daddy was mayor 100 years ago and he was a little boy, and he's been our lieutenant governor. And he was the lieutenant governor when we were at St. Gabriel because of the hurricane. And I called him a few times to get some things. But the thing is, I am not political enough, so that's another reason we're not funded.

The third reason we are not funded is just because of what happened with Katrina. Nobody's funded now in this city. The DA's down. The clerk of Criminal Court is down. The employees in the Sewerage and Water Board and Parks and Parkways and all them are down. And you know, we have all kind of problems, and in the future we're going to have a gigantic deficit, some $50 million, $60 million. They're going to have to cut us more.

And so the only thing I am being able to keep now are pathologists. They told me I could have another pathologist or I could have three more clerks. But they're only interested in the balance sheet. ...

You're not getting funding because you said the dead don't vote. Well, to the people who do vote, what's the importance of what you do?

Our society is a chaotic society due to many things, and you know what they are as well as I do. The coroner adds a little bit of semblance and order to a chaotic society by saying what happened to this person or these persons, that the drunken driver did or that this bad bend in the road did.

I mean, there's so many things in public safety that the coroner can comment on, which I have done a lot of in the past. I said I got into this job because of drug treatment. Well, as a side effect of that, when I got into this job, the average lily-white suburban person didn't know that a 14-year-old kid was smoking pot, you know? And I brought all that out. So I got into the drug thing to alert the public. I believed at the time, and I still do, that out of the investigation of death that I can come up with public health recommendations to help the public not only in drunken driving, not only in your kid using his mama's nerve pills, you know. ... All of us pay the price for drugs, even though we don't even know what they are. We all do.

And who knows what's going to happen when we start doing autopsies on people [whose] relatives and friends claim they died because they were breathing in the oil fumes? I mean, look at what happened when people decided when they were breathing in the asbestos out of the walls and stuff like that. And that causes big lung problems, you know.

So you have the public health --

I think it's the beginning of public health. I think the coroner's office can be used to be the very beginning and can filter these various problems to the right agencies to do help.

And that's what I've always tried to do in everything we've ever done. We had water skiers who had been hit by boats. Just in every field of endeavor the coroner is involved sooner or later.

And especially in the field of entertainment, helping outside activities, football, baseball. I mean, you know, the NFL helmets have changed dramatically because of injuries, head injuries that happened five, 10, 15 years ago. And now they've got more padding. And [that's because] the neurosurgeons told them, "Look, these guys are having all these problems."

So, I mean, if you use the bloody pulpit of the coroner's office -- which I have done in the past, but since the storm I confess to you I have not done it -- I mean, I'm just trying to keep up, because we've got the same number of murders. We've got more autopsies to do, and we've got less people. And so this job is very difficult without pay. And the pay is minimum wage for the workers here. It's minimum wage.

And every day I'm so afraid that somebody with the psychiatric people is going to do something wrong here in this office. I worry about that.

Because you're not only in charge in death investigations --

I'm in charge of the mental health, getting people off the street. We're the only state in the union that can do that. If you've got a friend or a relative that's a psycho, I mean, you can't go to your coroner where you live out there in Berkeley, [Calif.,] and you can't tell him: "Well, I've got this nutty guy who works for me, this cameraman. He's a real nut. He uses drugs on Saturday night. He goes into some other world and does all these bad things." The coroner would say: "Man, that ain't my job. You've got to go see a judge, and you've got to go through a hearing to have the judge order the cops to go pick him up against his will."

In Louisiana, I just sign my name, and the cops go pick him up against his will. It's a safety thing. We get nuts off the street. Our only problem is we don't have a place to put them, and they're back on the street. ...

[How do you figure out time of death? How imprecise is it?]

... That's the most imprecise determination that we make. I have said before the only precise, 100 percent accurate way of telling time of death is if the patient had his head cut off and his wristwatch got broken when his head fell off. ...

But you can get a pretty [good] idea. If a body's laying out in the woods, you have a better chance about saying how many days because of certain insects that come to the body. There are certain times that the maggots are there. And then a few times, a few days later, the beetles show up. First with the maggots, you can tell the stages. If you pick up maybe a handful of maggots and look at them under a microscope, you can tell what stages they're in to see how long they have been there.

The beetles are very precise and very accurate. They show up at five days -- usually four and a half to five days. And they [stand] around, and they clean everything up. And it doesn't take them long. So if you see perfectly clean remains, the beetles have already left. So you know that now you're getting to be a week since time of death.

We have a lot of deaths that occur in woods and in the bayous and stuff like that. And that's more accurate. But to find out the time of a murder occurring when the person died, that is extremely difficult. And we usually don't do that. ...

You [talk] about the decedent as a patient.

Yeah.

I thought they were dead.

It's my belief that the autopsy report and death certificate finalizes the patient's health record, the health records that we all have. ... We have a birth record, we have a record in between, and we have a death record. All of that is together. ... I just believe that our final demise is part of our life. ... And I call them all patients. ...

COMMENTS

blog comments powered by Disqus

In order to foster a civil and literate discussion that respects all participants, FRONTLINE has the following guidelines for commentary. By submitting comments here, you are consenting to these rules:

Readers' comments that include profanity, obscenity, personal attacks, harassment, or are defamatory, sexist, racist, violate a third party's right to privacy, or are otherwise inappropriate, will be removed. Entries that are unsigned or are "signed" by someone other than the actual author will be removed. We reserve the right to not post comments that are more than 400 words. We will take steps to block users who repeatedly violate our commenting rules, terms of use, or privacy policies. You are fully responsible for your comments.

Posted Feburary 1, 2011

Watch Post Mortem »
FRONTLINE series home | Privacy Policy | Journalistic Guidelines | PBS Privacy Policy | PBS Terms of Use

FRONTLINE is a registered trademark of WGBH Educational Foundation.
Web Site Copyright ©1995-2014 WGBH Educational Foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS