The Cook County medical examiner’s office routinely fails to abide by a requirement that it send an investigator to the scene of every suspicious death, including all homicides and suicides.
Now, saying it can’t afford to do that, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle has come up with a Chicago-style solution: water down the county ordinance that requires the on-site visits.
The ordinance says a medical examiner’s “representative shall go to the location of the body” and begin an “investigation with an examination of the scene” — though the agency and Preckwinkle dispute that that’s a requirement.
Still, Preckwinkle is moving to change the ordinance so the office instead would be given “discretion” about whether to make “a scene examination,” based on “generally accepted guidelines for conducting medico-legal death investigations.”
The change would “clarify that scene investigations are assigned as necessary and at the discretion of the medical examiner just like autopsies,” Preckwinkle spokeswoman Becky Schlikerman says.
Preckwinkle and Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, the chief medical examiner she hired, have maintained that they would need more staff and that it would be too costly for the county — facing an anticipated budget shortfall next year of $82 million — to get someone to the site of each suspicious death in Chicago and the Cook County suburbs.
“It is the goal of the medical examiner’s office to continue to increase scene investigations because such investigations can assist the forensic pathologists in their tasks,” Schlikerman says. “However, the office has to triage what cases get scene visits based on the circumstances of each case, case load and staffing levels. In addition, it would cost approximately $5 million to increase the staffing level to be able to go to each of the thousands of cases.”
But the Chicago Sun-Times reported in February that, over a three-year span, there were 130 days when the agency’s investigators didn’t go out on even one death — even on cases that were found to be homicides, suicides and accidents. Overall, the medical examiner’s office went to fewer than one of every five death scenes.
Thousands of bodies a year are brought to the county morgue on the West Side so the medical examiner’s pathologists can perform autopsies or less-intrusive examinations to determine how they died. Their rulings often influence whether and how the police investigate those deaths.
The pathologists have about two dozen investigators to collect information to help make those determinations. They view the scene, record details and sometimes talk with families or get medical and prescription histories.
Under Arunkumar, the investigators’ priorities have been to visit the scenes of possible homicides, suicides and child deaths. But they don’t come close to getting out to all of those scenes, often relying instead on the police to provide details.
County officials have said they don’t know of a single case in which not going to the scene of a death has compromised an investigation.
The Sun-Times has reported that the FBI believes that the 2015 shooting death of off-duty Chicago police Sgt. Donald Markham, who was found dead in his bed of a gunshot wound to the head, was a homicide — and not a suicide, as one of Arunkumar’s pathologists ruled.
The FBI met with Arunkumar and others in the office in December to make its case that the medical examiner was wrong in finding, as the police told the agency, that Markham killed himself after arguing with his wife, also a Chicago cop.
The city of Chicago’s inspector general is investigating whether the police might have botched or rigged the investigation.
The medical examiner’s office has said it didn’t send out an investigator because it wasn’t notified by the Chicago police until the body already was en route to the morgue in a police vehicle.
Preckwinkle’s proposal also would mandate police immediately notify the agency of deaths.
Last month, the Sun-Times reported that the medical examiner’s office is conducting an unprecedented review of more than 200 cases handled by Dr. John Cavanaugh, one of its former pathologists, for errors that included missing a murder.
Last week, the newspaper reported the agency hired an investigator who was charged with shooting his fiancée in the legs.