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Medical examiner slow to review cases of fired pathologist who missed a murder

Dr. John E. Cavanaugh

Dr. John E. Cavanaugh. | Sun-Times files

More than a year after finding that one of its pathologists missed a murder and launching an unprecedented review of every one of the 218 cases Dr. John E. Cavanaugh handled, the Cook County medical examiner’s office is little more than one-third of the way done, records show.

And the county agency says it won’t finish until the end of 2019 — more than two years after Cavanaugh was fired.

Still, Cook County spokeswoman Natalia Derevyanny says, “This is a top priority for the medical examiner’s office.”

Derevyanny says it’s taking time because the pathologists reviewing Cavanaugh’s cases also continue to handle new cases.

Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, the chief medical examiner, ordered the review after finding that Cavanaugh, her former top deputy, failed to realize that a man who was found dead in a burning apartment died as a result of being stabbed.

Arunkumar — whose agency is overseen by Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle, now in the race to succeed Mayor Rahm Emanuel — fired Cavanaugh from his $225,000-a-year post. And she said she would have her staff go through records and evidence from each of the cases he oversaw during 10 months with the agency to see whether Cavanaugh made other mistakes and, if so, correct his findings.

So far, Arunkumar’s agency has changed Cavanaugh’s findings regarding “manner of death” in five of the 82 cases reviewed — including that of the unidentified man found in the smoldering East Chatham apartment, whose death was reclassified from “undetermined” to homicide.

In other cases, the manner of deaths have been changed for:

• A gunshot victim, from suicide to undetermined.

• A 2-year-old boy, from “natural” to undetermined because bruises had been found.

• A man, from undetermined to natural.

• Another man, from “accidental” to natural.

Dr. John E. Cavanaugh ruled a 2-year-old boy who collapsed and died in February 2017 at an apartment in the 1700 block of Juneway Terrace died of natural causes — a finding his office later changed.

Dr. John E. Cavanaugh ruled a 2-year-old boy who collapsed and died in February 2017 at an apartment in the 1700 block of Juneway Terrace died of natural causes — a finding his office later changed. | Tyler Lariviere / Sun-Times

There are 11 other cases in which the manner of death was determined to be correct but the medical examiner’s staff found that the “cause of death” was incorrectly reported by Cavanaugh — including a woman found to have died from “hypertensive heart disease” rather than “acute pancreatitis.” The office says those revisions “have been primarily clerical.”

The medical examiner’s office won’t say whether the protracted analyses of Cavanaugh’s cases has delayed or hampered any criminal investigations involving police.

Pathologists make their rulings based on an autopsy or a less-intrusive examination of a body. The determination of what caused a death — whether it’s, say, as a result of natural causes or a homicide or a suicide or an accident — can prompt a police investigation or mean there won’t be one.

A change in that determination also can mean families may have to deal with a new set of circumstances surrounding the death of a loved one.

Arunkumar’s agency notified Cook County prosecutors and the Chicago Police Department about the review because findings of any mistakes could affect criminal investigations and prosecutions.

Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, Cook County's chief medical examiner.

Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, Cook County’s chief medical examiner. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Of Cavanaugh’s 218 cases, he ruled 24 were homicides. Arunkumar’s staff has reviewed nine of those 24 cases as of Nov. 30, records show.

Derevyanny says the agency is trying “to ensure that each case is thoroughly evaluated while also ensuring that current cases receive adequate resources.”

She says the medical examiner’s office “will take the time necessary to ensure the quality of work is not compromised.”

In cases where Cavanaugh’s findings have been changed, she says the medical examiner’s office has amended the death certificates “submitted to the Illinois Department of Public Health Division of Vital Records and to the funeral home that handled arrangements so the death certificate can be provided to family.”

Arunkumar previously has said she has filed a complaint against Cavanaugh with the Illinois Department of Professional and Financial Regulation, which licenses and disciplines doctors. The state agency won’t comment.

Arunkumar initially hired Cavanaugh as her chief deputy, a job he started in February 2017. A few months later, she demoted him, then fired him effective Nov. 30, 2017.

Cavanaugh, 61, of Crown Point, Indiana, continues to work part-time for the Marion County Coroner in Indianapolis.

Asked about the slow pace of the review, Cavanaugh says, “It doesn’t sound like it was that important.”

The medical examiner’s office has touted improvements since revelations in 2012 — four years before Arunkumar assumed the top job — that coolers overflowed with bodies and corpses in blue body bags were being stacked in hallways because pathologists couldn’t keep up.

In the past year, though, the Sun-Times has reported that some of the agency’s investigators, who help collect evidence, have faced disciplinary action for failing to visit even a single crime scene each month.

The Sun-Times also has reported that the FBI thought Arunkumar’s office botched a murder case, incorrectly finding that Chicago police Sgt. Donald Markham shot himself in the head in 2015. Federal agents believe he was murdered.

READ MORE:

Unprecedented review after medical examiner fires doctor who missed a murder, May 27, 2018

Doctor fired by Cook County medical examiner now under the microscope in Indiana, July 16, 2018

Cook County prosecutors want a 2nd opinion on fired pathologist’s murder finding, Aug. 7, 2018

The Cook County medical examiner’s office is reviewing each of the 218 cases that Dr. John E. Cavanaugh handled.

The Cook County medical examiner’s office is reviewing each of the 218 cases that Dr. John E. Cavanaugh handled. | Sun-Times files