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Steinberg: Stop pretending and go back to having a ‘coroner’

Chief Cook County Medical Examiner Dr. Stephen Cina plans to retire in June. | Sun-Times file photo

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Cook County Medical Examiner Dr. Stephen Cina announced his retirement Wednesday, claiming a desire to seek a “more peaceful lifestyle.”Which immediately raises the question: What about his four-year tenure wasn’t peaceful?

Perhaps he was referring to the dramatic press conference where he revealed that teenager Laquan McDonald was shot 16 times, 14 while lying in the street, dying.

Oh right. There was no such press conference. Cina’s term was distinguished by a big hike in funding, allowing him to hire more staff and modernize the medical examiner’s office, and though we played connect-the-dots last week, I would be so bold to suggest that those two elements — his keeping mum and his being served a big heaping slice of county pie — are not unrelated. Just a theory.

I’d love to ask him about it, but no interviews, at least not with me. Then again, I’m the one who pointed out when he showed up that he planned to keep his $5,000-a-day forensic consultancy sideline. That kind of thing tends to sour relations.

OPINION

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Not so for his predecessor, Dr. Nancy Jones, who had a habit of articulating medical findings, even ones that her bosses found unwelcome. Such as in 2009 when she said that Chicago Board of Education President Michael Scott committed suicide, even though Scott’s pal, Mayor Richard M. Daley, and Scott’s family preferred to dwell in an alternate universe of flimsy conjecture. Daley threw Jones under the bus, and her staff passed around photographs of the messes they were supposed to be cleaning up. The newspaper dutifully printed them as evidence of a poorly run office, and Jones was shown the door.

The ME before her was Edmund Donoghue of Great Heat Wave fame. In July 1995, Donoghue went off reservation, announcing that Chicagoans were dying en masse from heat-related causes, to the irritation of Daley, who was trying to run a world class city, not one where hundreds of residents perish alone in misery in their airless apartments, their bodies stacking up in refrigerated trailers in the ME office parking lot. Donoghue left in 2006, complaining that budget cuts didn’t allow him to properly staff his office.

Before Donoghue was the first medical examiner, Dr. Robert Stein. He was accused of being overly enthusiastic about his position: he seemed to relish the spotlight around the Gacy murders, kept a few Gacy paintings in his office, and for a time wanted to put a forensic pathology museum in the basement of the morgue.

Stein was certainly proud of the place. “See, and no smell!” he told me, in the morgue hallway a quarter century ago, when I spent the day with him watching autopsies, something I did with Jones as well, which might be a factor in my favorable impressions of both. I’m of the opinion that public officials performing crucial public duties on the public dime should be public about what they’re doing. Trying to conduct civic affairs in secret only bounces back bad, eventually, as our current mayor has learned to his sorrow or has at least experienced — I have my doubts about his ability to actually learn much of anything — and will no doubt be reminded a few more times before he slinks off to join Daley in seclusion and shame.

Before Stein, we didn’t have a medical examiner but a coroner — a political hack in a bowler hat who could be counted on to toe the corpse, huddle with his usual crew of inquest juror hirelings, then pull the wet stump of a cigar out of his mouth and announce a cause of death in harmony with the official police version. The corruption was so intractable that in the mid-1970s the city instituted an entirely new system.

Now we depend on cellphone cameras to contradict the police.

Maybe it’s time to go back to using the term “coroner.” Keep expectations low.

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