STUDIES: Errors by Texas Medical Examiners Led to Wrongful Convictions

A recent investigaton by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram uncovered a series of mistakes by medical examiners in Texas. “Medical examiners have goofed up eye color and gender. They’ve made mistakes on the locations of scars or tattoos, described gallbladders and appendixes that had long since been removed – even confused one body for another,” noted the story.  Webb County Chief Medical Examiner Corinne Stern was criticized for an autopsy she performed on an infant while she was working in Alabama. Her report indicated that the infant was suffocated, but other experts concluded “her finding was based on junk science and that the [baby] was stillborn.”  Following the experts' report, the capital murder charge against the baby’s mother was dropped.

In 2007, former Travis County medical examiner Roberto Bayardo recanted his original testimony that helped convict Austin baby-sitter Cathy Lynn Henderson of capital murder and placed her on death row for the death of a baby. Twelve years earlier, Dr. Bayardo had testified that the baby’s cause of death was from receiving intentional blows. His new testimony said it was unclear what had happened and Henderson may have accidentally dropped the child.  "The work of the medical examiner's office is just so slipshod," said Tommy Turner, the former special prosecutor who put a Lubbock medical examiner behind bars for falsifying autopsies.

 

Former Harris County Medical Examiner Joye Carter’s mistake regarding a victim’s time of death led to the wrongful conviction of an ex-con. Carter reported that the victim had been dead for 25 days, while forensic pathologists claimed the victim could not have been dead for more than two weeks. The defendant could not have committed the crime if the victim had been dead for the shorter time because he was in jail. The convicted man’s execution was postponed because of the discrepancy. "The state does not keep track of MEs in any shape, form or fashion," Bexar County Chief Medical Examiner Randall Frost said. The state doesn't even know how many certified forensic pathologists work in government offices, he added.

“There’s no room for error when somebody’s life depends on their findings,” said private criminal investigator Tina Church.

(Y. Berard, "With little oversight in Texas, autopsies often careless," Fort Worth Star-Telegram, September 26, 2009). See Arbitrariness and Innocence.