No National Standards, Little Oversight
Our nationwide investigation has found that there is no federal oversight of death investigators or the offices in which they work. Body parts have been lost in Massachusetts, murderers went free in Nebraska because of incompetent autopsies, whereas in Mississippi botched autopsies have sent innocent people to prison for life.
"Hospitals are accredited. Barbers are accredited. You would think that a medical legal death investigation system would have to go through a periodic inspection and accreditation," says Dr. Ross Zumwalt, chief of the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator and one of the co-authors of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) study that recommends national standards for death investigation. "We need a federal or national standard because there is so much variation between the states."
Currently the nation's 2,342 death investigation offices can receive voluntary accreditation from two industry organizations:
- The National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) standards are recognized as the model for national standards and the group has certified nearly 70 offices to date. NAME accreditation lasts for five years.
- The International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners (IACME) has accredited nine offices. IACME offices are accredited for three years.
Why Aren't More Offices Accredited?
There are several reasons why offices don't choose to get accredited:
- Without a mandate, many offices don't see any benefit in pursuing the certification process
- Lack of funding, which can be reflected in an understaffed office, outdated or insufficient equipment, or an inability to afford the administrative costs of the initial accreditation or subsequent renewals
- Insufficiently trained personnel
"The federal government really has not shown a great interest in forensic pathology and medical examiners," says Dr. Victor Weedn, an assistant medical examiner in Maryland, in terms of explaining the lack of federal funding for death investigation. "We fall between the cracks of criminal justice and public health."
The only federal funding available for forensic pathology is under the Paul Coverdell Act, which awards grants to state and local governments "to help improve the quality and timeliness of forensic science and medical examiner services." Coverdell grants can be applied to the accreditation process, as well as to costs related to personnel, training and lab equipment.
Is Federal Oversight Coming Soon?
In late January 2011, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) introduced the Criminal Justice and Forensic Science Reform Act [PDF]. The legislation requires that all forensic science labs receiving federal funding be accredited according to rigorous new standards and oversight, and that forensic scientists meet basic proficiency, education and training requirements to receive certification.
Leahy said he was "disturbed to learn about still more cases in which innocent people may have been convicted, and perhaps even executed, in part due to faulty forensic evidence." He said the bill was a "first step toward guaranteeing the effectiveness and scientific integrity of forensic evidence used in criminal cases."