Bloodletting?

The medical examiner's controversial DNA expert is fired... for doing her job

If one of the reasons cited by the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office for its recent firing of Dr. Elizabeth Johnson is legitimate, other employees of the medical examiner should be forewarned: Don't work too much.

But if Johnson's take on the reason she was fired is correct, then the medical examiner's staff should take away another message: Abandon your scientific objectivity if your work doesn't conform to what cops and prosecutors think.

Johnson, a molecular biologist who had headed the county's DNA laboratory for five years, was informed on the Friday before Christmas that the M.E.'s office no longer needed her services. A memo to Johnson from her boss, Dr. Ashraf Mozayani, the medical examiner's chief toxicologist, indicates Johnson was terminated because she was disregarding her superiors' orders by putting in too many hours at the lab.

But Johnson firmly believes there was another motive for her firing -- that she refused to be a "team player" with police and prosecutors in the investigation of murder suspect Joe Vincent Durrett. Johnson's dismissal came 15 days after she had testified before a grand jury that reindicted Durrett for the 1995 murders of his ex-wife Martha Parmer and her sister Linda Harrison, who were found bludgeoned to death in the Pasadena home they shared.

A previous indictment of Durrett was dropped last year after tests that Johnson conducted on blood from the double-murder scene failed to support the conclusion by Pasadena investigators and the district attorney's office that Durrett was responsible for the killings. After the initial charges were dismissed, the D.A.'s office took the extraordinary step of having five of Johnson's case files subpoenaed by another grand jury and requesting that outside experts scrutinize her groundbreaking but controversial DNA testing techniques.

Johnson does plead guilty to working more hours than instructed, but says she did so out of necessity. The medical examiner's DNA lab has been understaffed since last summer, when the lab's serologist quit and an administrative assistant was reassigned. Compounding the manpower shortage, one of the two DNA analysts who worked in the lab under Johnson has recently been on vacation. Nevertheless, Johnson says, she and her two staffers were given more work and responsibility. In addition to being told to handle the serologist's job, Johnson and her assistants were assigned to oversee the intake and release of evidence, a job previously performed by a separate division of the M.E.'s office.

As a salaried employee, Johnson was never eligible for overtime pay. But after Dr. Joye Carter took over as the county's chief medical examiner last summer, Johnson says, she and her assistants were told that they needed approval to seek compensatory time for overtime beyond an eight-hour day -- approval that was not often granted.

"When they told us we couldn't work any comp time," says Johnson, "we just started giving the time away for free because we just could not keep up with the workload."

Two days before Johnson was let go, Mozayani informed her of a new policy that restricted working hours at the lab to between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. Johnson says she pointed out that other DNA labs are often open 12 hours a day, because "some of these things could not be done in an eight-hour day." But her argument failed to sway Mozayani, who was brought to the M.E.'s office by Carter.

"I was told Dr. Carter wanted it this way," Johnson says of the restricted hours of operation.

Johnson acknowledges that she did not clear out of the building until 5:30 or 5:45 on the afternoon of the day following her notification of Carter's dictum. The next morning she was handed her walking papers.

"Your time sheet recording of time and your unauthorized attempts to obtain compensatory time have been discussed with you on numerous occasions," reads Mozayani's December 20 memo. "These actions, as well as others, have reflected your continued insubordination to authority."

Neither Carter nor Mozayani returned calls from the Press. But Alex Conforti, chief administrator of the medical examiner's office, while declining to comment on Johnson's termination, did confirm that the DNA lab is indeed understaffed.

As of this writing, in fact, "understaffed" is a dire understatement. One of Johnson's two assistants, Monica Puppi, resigned last week, and the other, Sara Bowne, submitted her resignation this week, leaving the DNA lab unstaffed. Their departures came at an especially inopportune time for Carter, who, according to Puppi, had promised that the M.E.'s office would quickly identify the remains of the victims of the December 22 explosion at the Wyman-Gordon Forging plant. Those identifications will rest heavily on DNA work. After the Wyman-Gordon tragedy, Carter and Mozayani suddenly rescinded the order that the DNA lab be vacated by 5 p.m.

"I was basically told to work around the clock," says Puppi.
"It's very interesting how rules are created and destroyed in the blink of an eye," Puppi wrote in her resignation letter to Carter. "When we needed more hands the most, we only lost the hands we already had .... I do not wish to be part of this working environment anymore."

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