This story was originally published in the New Haven Register and was written by Esteban L. Hernandez
FARMINGTON >> Lack of storage space for bodies and shorthanded medical examiners have cost the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner its full national accreditation, the result of deficiencies largely rooted in a spike of fatal drug overdoses in the state.
The OCME’s office said in a release Wednesday that inadequate staffing and refrigerated body storage are among the major deficiencies found by the National Association of Medical Examiners. NAME accredits 90 offices in the United States, serving more than 166 million people, according to the release, including offices in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Vermont and New Hampshire.
NAME formally informed OCME that it was being placed on provisional accreditation in a letter dated Jan. 31. The accreditation organization gave its recommendation following an on-site review.
Chief Medical Examiner Dr. James Gill had warned last year that such a decision was not only looming, but highly likely. Budget cuts in the department left Gill’s office scrambling to address the sharp rise in drug overdoses in the state. More than 400 people died of fatal drug overdoses between January 2016 and June 2016, according to statistics from Gill’s office.
Executive Secretary Linda Sylvia said in the release that OCME is working with the state’s Office of Policy and Management and the Department of Administrative Services to address both major deficiencies. The release said some vacant technical and non-technical staff positions have been refilled and the office is putting out a bid in March for a new refrigerated storage space.
OPM spokesman Chris McClure issued a statement on Wednesday on behalf of Gov. Dannel Malloy’s office.
“While we have not reviewed (the) NAME report, we appreciate the insights of outside accreditation entities, and certainly appreciate the important and difficult work of the medical examiner’s office,” McClure said in the statement. “We will review the report and continue working with Dr. Gill and his staff as the budget process plays out in the weeks and months ahead.”
If the office does not address its deficiencies by September, it will completely lose NAME accreditation. Sylvia said accreditation shows an office performs “sound and timely death investigations.”
“This instills confidence in the police departments, attorneys and the families that are served,” Sylvia said. “Mistakes by a medical examiner put people’s lives at risk, can result in the innocent imprisoned and cost millions of dollars in civil claims.”
New Haven criminal defense attorney Hugh F. Keefe said a medical examiner stripped of accreditation could be detrimental to state prosecutors but helpful to the defense. Medical examiners frequently testify in cases involving homicides.
“It’s fodder for cross-examination,” Keefe said Wednesday. “If they’re doing that with one hand tied behind their back because accreditation has been suspended, it makes their testimony … less credible.”
Perhaps the most notorious example of how a defense can raise doubts over evidence collection and affect a case was in the so-called Trial of the Century, when O.J. Simpson’s defense attorneys questioned the Los Angeles Police Department’s procedure when that agency collected blood evidence.
“The big deal is that convictions would be harder to obtain,” Keefe said.
Senate Republican President Pro Tempore Len Fasano, R-North Haven, said in a statement that ““The chief medical examiner’s office losing its accreditation shows the insanity of the state’s priorities. We knew this was coming. We were warned in the spring that the Democrats’ budget cuts would result in this outcome.
“We were warned again in the fall. But still the governor refused to take action and restore the $398,700 that he cut to that office,” Fasano said. “Without accreditation, every piece of evidence in every case processed by that office will be called into question. This is a core public health and public safety necessity. Ultimately losing accreditation will be a significant cost to the state and municipalities and an extreme hardship for our criminal justice system. If the state has a budget surplus, which the governor claims we do, why would he not use that now to preserve the state’s accreditation?”
NAME identified four major deficiencies and one minor deficiency; any major deficiencies, called Phase 2, result in loss of full accreditation. The release listed the major deficiencies, which include having staff performing more than 325 autopsies per year, which is the recommended limit.
Insufficient storage space for bodies and their handling is another major concern outlined by OCME. NAME recommends adding three new medical examiner positions to remediate this problem, while OCME said they’re working to convert a storage area to add more refrigerator space for remains.
Other minor deficiencies found by NAME included that 90 percent of postmortem examinations were not completed within 60 days from time of autopsy; a majority of the medical investigators that have worked in the office for five years aren’t registered or certified by the American Board of Medical Death Investigators; and that a temperature alarm for a refrigerators was unplugged.
Sylvia said in the release that the OCME is scheduled to testify Feb. 23 at the legislature’s Joint Committee on Appropriations’ public hearing.
Reach Esteban L. Hernandez at 203-680-9901