NPR, ProPublica And FRONTLINE Examine "Post Mortem: Death Investigation In America"
Popular television shows portray death investigators as high-tech sleuths wielding the most sophisticated tools of 21st century science. An unprecedented collaborative investigation by NPR, ProPublica and FRONTLINE, beginning today, found a very different reality: a dysfunctional system, short of qualified people, that is squeezed for resources with no national standards and little oversight. In state after state, the investigation found instances of autopsies conducted by doctors who lacked certification and training, when they were even done at all. Errors by coroners and forensic pathologists have allowed potentially guilty perpetrators to go free, and the innocent to be accused of crimes they did not commit.
NPR, ProPublica and FRONTLINE report the startling findings of their year-long exploration of death investigation in America in “Post Mortem,” a multipart series beginning today on NPR and FRONTLINE, and available now at NPR.org and the partners’ websites. The series is airing throughout the week on All Things Considered and Morning Edition and available at NPR.org; the website also features an original video about two wrongful convictions resulting from inaccurate death investigations. An hour-long FRONTLINE documentary airs tonight at 9PM (ET) on PBS, and detailed reports are at ProPublica.org.
“Post Mortem” is reported by NPR investigative reporter Sandra Bartlett; Lowell Bergman of FRONTLINE; and ProPublica’s A.C. Thompson and Mosi Secret. Ryan Gabrielson of the Center for Investigative Reporting’s California Watch and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley contributed to the project. The “Post Mortem” reporting team will participate in a web chat tomorrow, February 2 at NOON (ET), at NPR.org.
Bartlett begins “Post Mortem” with what’s considered to be the weakest link in the death investigation process: coroners. With no national oversight or necessary medical training, coroners, most of whom are elected, need only be of legal age and clear of felony convictions. The National Academy of Sciences has pushed for mandatory standards for autopsies and for states to switch from the coroner system to hiring board certified pathologists to work as medical examiners – a system currently in operation in only 16 states and Washington, D.C.
Traveling across the country investigating case after case, Bartlett uncovered countless problems resulting from this flawed and under-resourced coroners system. In New Orleans, NPR, ProPublica and FRONTLINE meet Coroner Frank Minyard, who has been elected to the post ten times and has the power to classify whether or not a death is a homicide, though he is a gynecologist by training. The investigation finds evidence that Minyard and his staff have been criticized for their handing of autopsies of people who died in the custody of law enforcement. Their conclusions had the effect of clearing officers of wrongdoing, but in case after case, independent forensic pathologists have challenged their findings.
The investigation also discovered that a shortage of forensic pathologists has the effect of keeping many incompetent people on the job despite repeated serious mistakes, and forcing states to turn to private companies to perform autopsies. In Northern California, NPR encounters Dr. Thomas Gill, a forensic pathologist who has left a trail of scandals in his wake. “He had been arrested and charged with drunk driving on his way to work early in the morning. He was giving crazy answers about how he thought people died,” a private investigator tells Bartlett about Gill’s past. In one murder case, the prosecution was so worried about Gill’s testimony that it secretly coached him and videotaped the sessions. When the tapes were exposed, the prosecutor was suspended. Nevertheless, Gill has been able to continue work in the field.
As “Post Mortem” continues on NPR, Bartlett reports that fewer states are conducting autopsies on elderly residents, which has health professionals worried about a quiet epidemic of “grey homicides” going undetected or unpunished. She also explores how families, upset with failures and mistakes by death investigators, are pushing for new laws to require more autopsies and to allow families to appeal questionable results.
The NPR News Investigative Unit crosses all news desks and programs to build upon, and strengthen the commitment to, NPR’s established investigative work. The team has been reporting extensively on traumatic brain injury and the military; mine safety in America, following the explosion at Upper Big Branch in West Virginia; and how prison economics influenced Arizona’s immigration law. NPR reaches a growing audience of more than 27 million listeners weekly; to find local stations and broadcast times for NPR programs, visit www.npr.org
FRONTLINE is produced by WGBH Boston and is broadcast nationwide on PBS. FRONTLINE’s stature over 28 seasons is reaffirmed each week through incisive documentaries covering the scope and complexity of the human experience. Credible, thoughtful reporting combined with powerful narrative, a good story well told: that is at the heart of FRONTLINE’s commitment to its viewers. The series senior producer of FRONTLINE is Raney Aronson-Rath. The executive producer of FRONTLINE is David Fanning. To watch FRONTLINE’s archive of 100 films visit: www.pbs.org/frontline
ProPublica is an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest. In 2010, it became the first online news organization to win a Pulitzer Prize. With the largest news staff in American journalism devoted solely to investigative reporting, ProPublica is supported by philanthropy and provides the articles it produces, free of charge, both through its own website and to leading news organizations selected with an eye toward maximizing the impact of each article. For more information, please visit www.ProPublica.org.
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