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El Paso County medical examiner: A difficult and controversial seat to fill

Updated: Wednesday, July 17 2013, 02:40 PM MDT
El Paso County medical examiner: A difficult and controversial seat to fill story image

By: Erika Castillo

As the El Paso County Medical Examiner's office is taking steps to usher in a brand new head pathologist, KFOX14 looks into a decade's worth of controversies surrounding the position.

It's the job of the medical examiner at the morgue to determine the cause of death and whether the death is a homicide.

The murder rate in El Paso remains low per capital, so death investigations by the El Paso medical examiner rarely deal with murders.

But when they do, the quality of the medical report is critical.

However, a big concern surrounding the medical examiner's office is why does the examiner perform more than twice the number of autopsies recommended by the National Association of Medical Examiners.

According to the National Association of Medical Examiners, "A medical examiner must perform no more than 250 autopsies a year. When the workloads exceed this amount, even a skilled medical examiner's quality will decline. Corners will be cut and mistakes will be made. When the number of autopsies exceeds 350 per year, pathologist's errors can become obvious."

Despite that, the workload of the local medical examiner far exceeds the standards set by NAME.

According to records KFOX14 obtained from El Paso County, in 2005, the El Paso County Medical Examiner conducted 614 autopsies, 566 in 2006 and 560 in 2007. Most recently, in 2009, the medical examiner conducted 426 autopsies – nearly twice the recommended amount.

In the last three years, the number of autopsies hovered in the range of 650 a year.

Taking into account NAME's recommendations, is the workload causing mistakes to be made at the medical examiner's office? Are murder trials being jeopardized as a result? Are homicide rulings being overlooked?

It's hard to pinpoint, but defense attorneys said the overload in the local medical examiner's office can be a factor that favors suspected criminals.

"It's critical; it's absolutely critical to successful prosecution of people who cause other people to die," said Gary B. Weiser, an attorney.

Weiser has prosecuted cases in the El Paso District Attorney's office and taught criminal justice at the University of Texas at El Paso for a decade. He said any weakness in the medical examiner's office can backfire for prosecutors.

"Because the first thing a jury does in cases like that when they come back not guilty (is) they raise the specter of reasonable doubt., and I've had them tell me as a defense attorney 'I've had reasonable doubt as to the cause of death in this case and that's why I acquitted. And it might be a horrible, gruesome murder, but without that solid testimony from the medical examiner, you can't get a conviction,'" Weiser said.

Although Dr. Juan Contin, the interim medical examiner for El Paso County, is himself current on all certifications required by the state, the office itself is not accredited with NAME with similar sized offices such as those in Bexar, Dallas, Harris, Nueces and Travis counties in Texas, which are all accredited.

In fact, El Paso County is the only county this size or larger in the state that is not nationally accredited.

The local medical examiner's office has never applied for accreditation. KFOX14 asked why that was, and the office has not issued a response. However, that may be because the inspection checklist to qualify is 30 pages long and covers everything from how the facility smells and the layout to body handling and toxicology.

"The lack of name accreditation should not be equated to lack of competency," said Dr. Mario Rason, El Paso County deputy medical examiner.

Rascon is the newest addition to the office. He arrived mid-April from Chihuahua. He's American-educated, medically licensed and certified to practice in Texas. He said part of the problem now is a national debate about creating a unified standards system for medical examiners and their offices.

"It's an impossibility because there is a tremendous shortage for medical examiners across the country. You would need 1,000 forensic pathologists to cover the needs of the whole country and there are probably less than 500," Rascon said.

To make matters more complicated, the office is operating under a cloud of controversy. The previous medical examiner, Paul Shrode, was fired amid state board complaints against him in 2010 when the county discovered he made inaccurate claims about his credentials.

Then, Shorde was replaced by Contin, who was previously fired by the county's medical examiner's office. Contin has a history of disciplinary actions against him by the state.

Luring someone with the proper credentials to a demanding job that is even more demanding by way of controversy and scrutiny is no easy task despite the salary.

The El Paso County medical examiner earns the highest salary of any employee in the county, which is about $265,784. That salary is even higher than the medical examiner in Dallas County.

Rascon said part of the national debate centers on how to increase those salaries significantly to compete with surgeons and encourage medical students to pursue pathology for now – though the circumstances are not ideal.

"We may never get the perfect medical examiner's office in El Paso as such, but we can plan to have an outstanding one and one that provides excellent medical death investigations for the citizens of El Paso," Rascon said.

The Texas House is also trying to help the county by passing a bill to make it easier for El Paso to fill the vacant medical examiner position. The measure clarifies that a county can appoint a medical examiner with a provisional license granted by the Texas Medical Board.

El Paso County medical examiner: A difficult and controversial seat to fill
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