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Posted at 10:36 AM ET, 02/ 8/2011

Story pick: Death investigation in America

By Theresa Vargas

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Virginia Chief Medical Examiner Marcella Fierro in the morgue in Richmond before her retirement in 2007/Linda Davidson/The Washington Post

Knowing I had done a profile a few years ago of Virginia’s chief medical examiner Marcella Fierro – which I had pitched to the editors at the time as a rare look into an often-closed profession – a colleague pointed me to this fascinating joint investigation by ProPublica, PBS "Frontline" and NPR.

For a year, reporters examined the nation's 2,300 coroner and medical examiner offices. The result is a multi-media portrait of a system that makes one hope to never die a suspicious death, especially across certain state lines.

In the first of several ProPublica pieces, the writers describe a "deeply dysfunctional system that quite literally buries its mistakes." They write:

"More than 1 in 5 physicians working in the country's busiest morgues -- including the chief medical examiner of Washington, D.C. -- are not board-certified in forensic pathology, the branch of medicine focused on the mechanics of death, our investigation found. Experts say such certification ensures that doctors have at least a basic understanding of the science, and it should be required for practitioners employed by coroner and medical examiner offices.
Yet, because of an extreme shortage of forensic pathologists -- the country has fewer than half the specialists it needs, a 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences [6] concluded -- even physicians who flunk their board exams find jobs in the field. Uncertified doctors who have failed the exam are employed by county offices in Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and California, officials in those states acknowledged. Two of the six doctors in Arkansas' state medical examiner's office have failed the test, according to the agency's top doctor.
In many places, the person tasked with making the official ruling on how people die isn't a doctor at all. In nearly 1,600 counties across the country, elected or appointed coroners who may have no qualifications beyond a high-school degree have the final say on whether fatalities are homicides, suicides, accidents or the result of natural or undetermined causes."

To find the ProPublica series, go here. The NPR series -- here. And the Frontline video -- here. Trust me, they will change any CSI-notions you might have of an autopsy.

By Theresa Vargas  | February 8, 2011; 10:36 AM ET
Categories:  Story Picks  
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