RALEIGH — In Wake County, the death-scene statistics don’t look good.
Medical examiners have been visiting death scenes in the county less than 1 percent of the time during the past 12 years, one of the lowest rates in the state. Examiners have failed to view the body at all in death cases nearly 13 percent of the time, records show.
Instead, the examiners have relied on the work – particularly the photography – performed by crime scene investigators with the City-County Bureau of Identification. The agency works directly with police and sheriff’s detectives throughout the county.
CCBI Director Sam Pennica says his agency’s primary role at a crime scene is to document, collect and preserve evidence. Some of that evidence, such as blood stains, blood splatter and DNA samples, is analyzed at CCBI’s local lab or is sent to labs at the State Bureau of Investigation.
“We document what we see,” he said. “We are there primarily to make sure that everything important to the scene is documented and collected. We don’t make any determinations at all with the cause of death.”
It is not a legal requirement to have a medical examiner at the scene of a death, though it is considered good practice. In Wake, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner provides medical examiners to determine cause of death, but they have very rarely gone to the scene: From 2001 to 2013, they visited the scene in less than 1 percent of more than 6,000 cases.
The state has moved to ensure that Wake County will have a trained death investigator at the scene of more suspicious deaths. State health officials earlier this year hired a trained, full-time specialist who will focus primarily on suspicious deaths in Wake County, while assisting medical examiners throughout the state.
Lauren Crowson worked at the Boston medical examiner’s office and North Carolina’s regional facility before arriving in Raleigh to work as nonphysician investigator with the state medical examiner’s office. She holds undergraduate degrees in biology, a master’s degree in forensics and graduate-level certification in death investigation, said DHHS spokesman Kevin Howell.
She has a starting salary of $38,789.
“Ms. Crowson is highly qualified, and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is excited to have her on board,” Howell said.
Being there is better
Howell said during past years, Wake has had “excellent crime scene investigators, and the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner staff has a comprehensive dialogue with law enforcement to ensure that a thorough death scene investigation is conducted.”
When asked whether the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner created the position to ensure a trained specialist would be in attendance at Wake County’s death scenes a greater percentage of the time, Howell answered in a word: “Yes.”
Pennica says sometimes the cause of death is obvious, but he said that there may be details about a homicide that a medical examiner “would never be able to see unless they are there at the crime scene.”
“Every crime scene is different,” he said. “So it’s hard to say that’s the case across the board. But in some select cases, yeah. They are at a disadvantage if they are not there.”
Many national experts say it’s unwise for medical examiners to rely on police for their death-scene investigations. That’s because police usually aren’t trained in the science of death.
“Police make terrible death investigators,” said Steven Shapiro, chief medical examiner for Vermont, a nationally accredited office. “They are criminal investigators. If they see there’s nothing sticking out of the body, they’re done.”
Not viewing bodies
State guidelines require that a medical examiner at least view the body before making a determination of cause of death. In Wake, that has not happened nearly 13 percent of the time since 2001. Seventy-four other counties did as well or better, records show.
Howell said the staff at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner views every body that comes to its facility. If a medical examiner is asked to investigate a death after a body has been buried or cremated, the “viewing of the body will, of course, be impossible in those instances,” Howell said via email, “and the investigation will be limited to a historical review of the circumstances of death and the observations made about the body at the time of death.”
Wake’s CCBI investigators go to nearly every autopsy performed by pathologists at the medical examiner’s office to answer questions about what they saw at the crime scene, Pennica said.
“It may be something simple,” Pennica said, “like, ‘What was the temperature?’ ”
Charlotte Observer staff writer Ames Alexander contributed.