Dissecting Dr. Carter

Harris County's chief pathologist finds herself under the microscope.

When Dr. Joye Carter took over as the chief medical examiner of Harris County 19 months ago, she knew she was inheriting an office in crisis. Still, Carter might be excused if she did not anticipate her past two months of job-threatening problems.

First, in January, Carter and two other pathologists in her office became the focus of a criminal investigation by the Harris County District Attorney's Office after it was learned that Carter may have allowed a physician unlicensed in Texas to perform dozens of autopsies at the county morgue -- thereby possibly compromising the integrity of several homicide investigations. Next, a Harris County civil court jury this month found Carter and one of her assistants guilty of violating the free speech rights of the former head of the morgue's DNA laboratory who successfully sued the county for $315,000 under the state whistle-blower act.

It was enough, no doubt, to test even the usually unshakable resolve of Kay Scarpetta, the hard-drinking, murder-solving forensic pathologist extraordinaire who is the fictional heroine of the crime novels of best-selling author Patricia D. Cornwell. But, like the constantly trouble-bound Scarpetta, it now appears that Carter may prevail.

Carter's biggest recent dilemma centered on the free fall of her relationship with one of her main benefactors, Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes. Holmes says while there's a chance that criminal charges could eventually be brought against Carter and others in the ongoing criminal investigation of the medical examiner's office, he doubts the public interest would be served by such action.

"If she can accomplish what she hopes to accomplish, she'll be a great medical examiner," says Holmes. The comment could signal a warming of the relationship between the district attorney and the medical examiner -- a relationship that just a few months ago was frigid at best, even though Carter had been Holmes's first choice to fill the chief medical examiner's post vacated by the retirement of the legendary Dr. Joseph Jachimczyk.

Carter, however, is apparently taking no chances. According to a high-ranking county official, Carter has hired a private attorney to advise her on everything from the criminal investigation to what papers to sign to what phone calls to return. Carter did not return calls from the Press last week. The county official, who asked not to be named, also suggests that Holmes may be putting a good face on his dealings with Carter in order to avoid appearing biased against her in the event criminal charges are filed.

Carter took over as the chief medical examiner of Harris County in July 1996, 11 months after the retirement of Jachimczyk. During his more than 30 years as county coroner, Dr. Joe, as he was known, had cultivated a larger-than-life image through his forensic work and testimony in high-profile cases such as the society murder of Dr. John Hill, made famous in the Tommy Thompson novel Blood and Money. But while Jachimczyk became a cult of personality, the fact that the medical and ethical standards inside the building named after him had begun to suffer went either ignored or unchallenged by county authorities.

Shortly after Jachimczyk's retirement in August 1995 came revelations of botched autopsies and illegal tissue harvesting from cadavers at the county morgue ["Autopsy", Houston Press, January 25, 1996]. It was also discovered that assistant pathologists at the medical examiner's office were padding their incomes by tens of thousands of dollars each year by conducting postmortems for other counties in the area. Given the sizable backlog of autopsies that existed at the time in pending Harris County criminal cases, county prosecutors accused the pathologists of giving preference to the more lucrative out-of-county moonlighting.

Not surprisingly, the district attorney had a keen interest in the selection of Jachimczyk's successor and, indeed, Holmes played a large role in the decision to hire Carter. It was a somewhat odd alliance from the beginning. Holmes was the often profane but always colorful hang-'em-high district attorney with a signature handlebar mustache and privileged River Oaks upbringing. Carter was a young black woman who sometimes wore her hair in corn-rows while serving as the chief medical examiner in the urban war zone of Washington, D.C.

But even though Carter was Holmes's and first choice to succeed Jachimczyk, she was not number one with the rest of the selection committee. Last spring the job was, instead, offered to Ross Zumwalt, a pathologist from Albuquerque, New Mexico. According to members of the selection committee, Zumwalt turned down the position because the offer did not include a job for his wife.

Nor was Carter the second pick of the committee. After Zumwalt turned them down, county officials turned to Jonathan Arden, the deputy chief medical examiner of New York City. Arden was favored by some members of the committee because of his expertise in pediatric forensic pathology -- a discipline that critics said had been severely lacking during the Jachimczyk reign. County commissioners appeared set to hire Arden, that is, according to Holmes, until he and Captain Richard Holland of the Houston Police Department's homicide division, both members of the selection committee, intervened on Carter's behalf.

According to Holmes, he and Holland favored Carter because she seemed well-grounded in the basics of forensic pathology: things like gunshot holes and knife wounds, the nuts and bolts of determining how someone was killed. Secondly, she could perform well on the witness stand. Holmes says Carter also shared the two lawmen's concerns in other areas. She was appalled that Harris County pathologists were being paid extra to perform autopsies for other counties. She also opposed the long-held practice of allowing funeral homes to transport the bodies of homicide victims to the morgue, risking the possible destruction of evidence in the process.

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