Investigation uncovers dysfunction in state’s medical examiner system

An explosive investigative report on dysfunction in the state medical examiner’s office has the governor-elect calling for wholesale reform. NJ Advance Media has uncovered evidence of mangled corpses, lost body parts and misplaced evidence that make the office among the worst in the nation. Chief Political Correspondent Michael Aron has more.

Aron: The piece is called “Death and Dysfunction” and is the result of an 18-month investigation by Stephen Stirling and S.P. Sullivan. Stephen Stirling joins us now. Stephen, what tipped you and Sean Sullivan to this story?

Stirling: It was actually something that came up after I’ve been investigating the heroin epidemic in New Jersey for a number of years and I started to get tips from people within the medical examiner community that the system for investigating death in New Jersey had a series of problems and had for quite a long time.

Aron: You say it’s a national disgrace and it’s known among medical examiners around the country as a system you don’t want to work in. What’s wrong with it?

Stirling: Well, any number of things. The system is not really a system to start with. It’s sort of a system of systems. There are a number of different offices. The state medical examiner doesn’t actually has over purview of most of them. It’s led to a series of delays in getting autopsy reports completed which leaves families waiting for months and months to hear how their loved ones died. The conditions in which bodies are kept we found to be sub-par. We found a lot of cases where death investigations were not being completed to satisfactory levels, and it’s led to a lot of hardships for families who are already dealing with what is often the most difficult experience of their lives.

Aron: You talk about this patchwork system. There are a couple of state offices, there are a couple of state-run regional offices, and then there are a couple of county regional offices. Would unifying this system under the state be the answer?

Stirling: Some form of that seems to be what most people point to. It’s just that the state medical examiner right now has no authority over the regional offices or the independent county offices right now. So, if he disagrees with something that they are doing, or any part of their practices, they don’t answer to him currently. And that’s viewed by many as a part of the problem just because there is no oversight of the majority of the system.

Aron: And several of the state medical examiners over the past 10 or 15 years have quit in frustration. How’s the current one, Andrew Falzon? How’s he approaching this systemic problem?

Stirling: The best that he can, really. He inherited a ship with a cracked rudder and a broken hull. So, he’s doing the best that he can and he does seem like he’s trying his best to implement some kind of reform to the system. But, he’s doing it with limited resources and resources that have been limited for years and years and years.

Aron: You write about resources, but it didn’t seem like resource gap was that great. You said that $26 million supports the system today, and that for an effective system, it would take $31.5 million. That doesn’t seem like that big of a difference.

Stirling: No, it’s not. And part of it is the local control that is always a major issue in New Jersey is if you regionalize the system, you would probably cut down on costs overall. So, you wouldn’t actually have to add too much costs overall to what is a fairly inexpensive system by New Jersey standards already.

Aron: When does a case, a death, go to the medical examiner?

Stirling: There are a number of conditions in New Jersey. But, if sort of loosely defined it’s any kind of suspicious or undetermined death. So, anytime a person dies and the circumstances are somewhat murky, a hospital official or a law enforcement official will refer the case to the medical examiner.

Aron: There was a well-known case of John and Joy Sheridan, first ruled by a medical examiner in Somerset County as a murder suicide. The family fought that desperately for nearly two years and then it got changed. Is that the kind of result that we see out of this patchwork system that you say is dysfunctional.

Stirling: Yes. We identified a number of cases like that and that was certainly the most prominent case to sort of shed light on this in recent years. But, not ever family has the resources that the Sheridan family does to make that kind of fight or mount that kind of fight.

Aron: How does that death get recorded in the end? Undetermined?

Stirling: Undetermined. So, Joy Sheridan’s death is still ruled as a homicide at this point, so the killer is at this point unknown and the family considers it something of a victory to at least get the implication that her husband killed her, wiped from the record.

Aron: You write that there are bodies double stacked on gurneys. Is this something you saw?

Stirling: No. This came from medical examiners within the system that spoke to us over the course of the investigation.

Aron: Were you inside morgues? Were you in these chilling places?

Stirling: We certainly asked to be, but we engaged the state six months ago in good faith understanding that these problems weren’t Dr. Falzon’s and that he inherited them. The state strung us along and ended up denying us because we would have loved to see the facilities. But, when we did interview him in November, he did note the overcrowding of bodies, in particularly the northern regional office.

Aron: And it takes about four months on average, or five months now, to process an autopsy or to get a ruling out of a medical examiner’s office?

Stirling: Yes, and that’s just not autopsies, that’s all cases. Autopsies generally take longer. Sometimes they’ll do external viewings, which will take less time. But, it takes about four months for any case to be processed through the system.

Aron: So, this was quite a piece. It got it’s own section of the Star-Ledger and other papers. Assemblywoman Valerie Vainieri Huddle has said that she wants to followup on this and seek reforms. Phil Murphy said he wanted to seek reforms when he becomes governor. What do you expect out of him?

Stirling: I would hope that he takes a look at it. I mean that would be more than the past several governors combined at this point. It’s great to see that the state Senate has called a hearing on the subject for Jan. 4 to look into the issue specifically. So, it’s nice to see that legislators in the state, from the governor-elect on down, seem committed at least to taking a look at the system and enacting some reform, because it’s really been this way for about four decades now without any substantive change.

Aron: Well, that’s what good journalism is for. Stephen Stirling, thanks very much.

Stirling: Thanks for having me.