State medical examiner's office struggling
Carver: State medical examiner's facility on cusp of restoring credentials
The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner's website proudly touts its operation's unique national distinction of being accredited by a pair of prestigious professional organizations -- the American Board of Forensic Toxicology and the National Association of Medical Examiners.
The toxicology unit more than 18 months ago lost its ABFT accreditation, resulting in a downgrade by the National Association of Medical Examiners to provisional status.
Dr. H. Wayne Carver on Friday said he is on the cusp of restoring both. Observers say the accreditation issues, attributed mainly to problems with record keeping and equipment tests, are further proof state officials must ensure his operation does not fall into the same disarray as the state police crime lab.
"It seems like they're being stretched very thin," said Michael Lawlor, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy's undersecretary for criminal justice policy. "A lot has to do with resources, some with management. You could say the same thing about the state police crime lab. The good news is it hasn't gone past the point of no return. Fixing it is complicated -- a little more difficult given the budget situation the state faces -- but doable. To not do it will cost us a lot more."
Lawlor has been given the task of reforming the state medical unit, the Forensic Science Laboratory in Meriden. That facility analyzes evidence submitted by local law enforcement agencies across Connecticut.
The American Society of Crime Laboratory Directors in August refused to renew the crime lab's accreditation after audits raised concerns about supervision, evidence control and quality assurance. In August, a new legislative report raised fresh concerns about the beleaguered lab, citing months-long delays in processing DNA and other physical evidence of sexual assaults.
Lawlor wants to use his review of the crime lab to also examine Carver's Farmington-based agency, which is grappling with budget and staffing cuts despite the rise in caseload over the last decade. In 2000, for example, Carver's duties included performing 1,186 autopsies and 8,752 cremations. In 2010, those numbers stood at 1,401 and 12,541, respectively.
The medical examiner's budget decreased from $5.9 million last fiscal year to $5.6 million, and Carver has lost a pair of full-time positions and has five full-time vacancies, according to Malloy's budget office.
"We are running on fumes," said Todd Fernow, director of the Criminal Law Clinic at the University of Connecticut and chairman of the commission that oversees the medical examiner. "We are down two physicians out of six ... so the four remaining doctors, including Dr. Carver, have had to pull up the slack."
The accreditation results were not immediately available, but Fernow said, "As far as I know, none of the equipment used was noted as substandard, none of the chemists and technicians were found to be insufficiently trained and no questions were raised regarding any particular test performed on active cases."
The medical examiner's office also brings in revenues -- approximately $1.2 million worth of fees in 2009-10.
Unlike other state agencies grappling with tough economic times, Carver's problems have until recently gone unpublicized. When he makes headlines, it is for delivering sometimes grisly testimony in high-profile court cases, such as the ongoing trial of Joshua Komisarjevsky about his alleged role in a 2007 Cheshire home invasion and homicide.
Then on Sept. 28, the Hartford Courant obtained an email from Carver to Fernow in which the medical examiner decried cost-cutting efforts by Malloy to merge his human resources and payroll personnel with those of other departments.
Carver complained those individuals perform other important duties and cannot be easily replaced.
Carver threatened to resign but told the Courant he would remain, "if I could come out of this with some level of administrative autonomy."
A few days later, Fernow confirmed information provided to Hearst Connecticut Media Group that the medical examiner's office lost the ABFT accreditation. Fernow said Carver did not tell him until April, and Lawlor learned of the matter three weeks ago after accepting Carver's invitation to tour his offices.
"He was trying to repair the situation before he reported to the commission, and it just didn't happen in a time frame we were comfortable with, and he didn't tell us for a substantial period of time," Fernow said.
In an email Friday evening, Carver said ABFT reinspected his operation in August and was told verbally it will pass.
"I was informed about two hours ago that we would be given a list of minor corrective actions by the end of next week -- something like a punch list for a contractor," Carver wrote.
Carver wrote once ABFT is satisfied, NAME will upgrade his status from provisional to full accreditation.
Lawlor said while accreditation is a concern, what matters most is the medical examiner still be able to provide convincing testimony on the stand and back it up with testing to satisfy a court and jury.
"And so far they've done an excellent job of that," Lawlor said.
Lawlor said he understands Carver's concerns about maintaining professional independence, but the office cannot be allowed to be free of any kind of administrative oversight.
He suggested since both the state crime lab and the medical examiner's office oversee toxicology operations, it might be worth exploring whether the two could be combined.
Fernow said there may be some economies in sharing resources but the state needs to tread carefully. He added the medical examiner's office would be at a "critical breaking point" if Carver suddenly departed in frustration.
"Mike Lawlor has been very receptive to us, very smart and right on the ball in understanding this is an opportunity to make us whole, too," Fernow said. "Theirs (the crime lab) is a debacle that needs to be redressed and fixed. Ours hasn't happened yet, but if we don't get the people we need, it may be a preview of coming attractions."
Staff writer Brian Lockhart can be reached at email@example.com