Will morgue problems tarnish testimony of county pathologists?
BY LISA DONOVAN Cook County Reporter email@example.com June 20, 2012 6:42PM
Updated: July 23, 2012 7:34AM
It’s probably only a matter of time before some sharp defense lawyer jumps on the highly publicized mess at the Cook County morgue to raise questions about an autopsy in some high-profile murder case.
“You may see some defense attorneys trying to do that — trying to say these administrative problems identified somehow shows they’re lax and that reports and testimony from the medical examiner shouldn’t be given the credibility they deserve,” said former Cook County State’s Attorney Dick Devine.
But Devine doesn’t expect those arguments about bodies piling up or unsanitary conditions to sway any trials or impeach the testimony of county pathologists.
“You’d have to see a situation where procedures and paperwork were so fouled up that … defense attorneys could undercut the testimony,” Devine told the Sun-Times.
But Cook County Commissioner John Fritchey isn’t so sure.
The North Side Democrat says the current housecleaning at the morgue — from burying bodies in a more timely fashion to the exit of top bosses there — is essential, not only from a moral standpoint but for legal reasons.
“If the office of the medical examiner doesn’t properly function, it raises not only ethical problems, but potential issues of liability and weaknesses in criminal cases, whether it’s a question of us getting sued by a family member because we mishandled or misplaced their loved one or whether it is a competent defense attorney questioning procedures in that office,” said Fritchey, an attorney.
Forensic pathologists, such as the ones employed by the county medical examiner’s office, are standard players — usually for the prosecution — in murder trials as they lay out autopsy and other findings that establish the cause, manner and time of a victim’s death.
Devine concedes the scandalous conditions exposed in the media may stick in the memory of a few jurors, but he doubts it will influence any verdicts.
“You may see some of it leak in to the general attitude of jurors that, ‘Gee, these people aren’t doing their job,’ but again, this has all been on the administrative side, and I’m not sure you’d see that” sway their opinion in a murder case, he said.
Jurors are typically well versed on police corruption and crooked politics in Cook County, jury consultant Alan Tuerkheimer said. The problems tarnishing the medical examiner’s office will, at the most, add a layer to the county’s controversies and may have to be addressed in the voir dire process, But once the murder trials start, the morgue’s woes should have little impact on the outcome or case strategy, Tuerkheimer said.
“Jurors firmly believe in experts,” he said. “I’d be surprised if there were more than a handful of jurors with a strong disposition [toward the medical examiner’s office] based on what they heard or read,” Tuerkheimer said.
Richard Kling, a professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, believes current problems at the medical examiner’s office will have “very little to no impact.”
“Rarely is cause of death an issue. Whether or not bodies were piling up at the morgue would really be irrelevant in most murder trials.”
Echoing sentiments from Fritchey, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle and others, Kling called Cook County’s Chief Medical Examiner, Dr. Nancy Jones — now retiring amid the controversy — a “fine” pathologist.
Kling says she was unfairly saddled with the problems of previous administrations.
“It’s much ado about nothing,” he said.