The scene of every death tells a story.
More often than not in Cook County, that story is told only by the police, though by law there always is supposed to be a second storyteller — the medical examiner’s office.
The medical examiner’s office is falling short of doing its job of visiting every scene of a suspicious death, in part for reasons beyond its control — the sheer number of such deaths can be overwhelming — and in part for reasons it definitely can control.
It is hard to understand, to begin with, why every medical examiner investigator is not required to do an honest day’s work.
A report in Sunday’s Sun-Times by Tim Novak and Robert Herguth details how the medical examiner’s office often literally phones it in — relying on phone calls and police reports to size up cases rather than visit death scenes. As the Sun-Times report makes clear, the result can be a subversion of justice.
It is unacceptable, for example, that investigators from the medical examiner’s office did not visit the death scenes in the politically explosive cases of Laquan McDonald, Quintonio LeGrier and Bettie Jones, each of whom was shot to death by a police officer.
Because the medical examiner failed to visit the scene in each case, the only official story of what occurred was the police version. In the Laquan McDonald case, that version of reality proved to be fiction.
The medical examiner’s office requires investigators to visit one death scene a month, an absurdly low figure. It’s not surprising, then, to find that investigators go out, on average, on fewer than one in five cases. There is no reason, given the relatively perfunctory nature of much of the work — most cases are opened and closed in a day — that investigators cannot go out to at least one death scene a day.
Every police-involved shooting should, of course, result in a visit from an investigator; and every investigator should be certified by the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators.
While at least one of the medical examiner’s 27 investigators has visited the death scene in more than a third of the cases assigned to him, other investigators make a visit much less often, One investigator, according to the Sun-Times, visited the scene in only 5 percent of her cases.
Novak and Herguth report that the investigators’ union contract makes it difficult to fire people. We can believe it. The contract says “discipline shall normally be progressive and corrective.”
The cause of justice in Cook County — and the public’s confidence in that justice — requires a more hard-working medical examiner’s office. With all due respect for the police, their story of what went down at a suspicious death scene should not be the only story, especially in cases of police-involved shootings.
The medical examiner’s office is intended to be a neutral set of eyes.
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