By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Richard Connelly
By Jeff Balke
By Casey Michel
By Craig Hlavaty
Holmes says he can't yet say whether any charges will be filed against Van Dusen for performing the autopsies or against Carter or any of her other assistants for allowing Van Dusen to practice medicine without a license. Last week, Carter was formally interviewed by investigators from the district attorney's office. Holmes says others in Carter's office will be questioned in the near future.
The use of unlicensed physicians to perform autopsies is not, however, a dilemma unique to the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office. In fact, recently the Washington Post published a series of reports about problems in the District of Columbia morgue -- which Carter used to head -- that parallel the Harris County controversy.
In January, one of D.C.'s forensic pathologists was fired after it was learned he had been performing autopsies without being licensed by the District of Columbia. (The physician, it should be noted, had only worked at the D.C. morgue for the past year and had come on board there after Carter's departure.) One week later, the head of the D.C. health department ruled that a second pathologist who had been performing autopsies after his medical license had expired last year (also after Carter left for Houston) would be allowed to return to work after renewing his license. That announcement was then followed by the news that the health department chief, himself, was also not licensed to practice medicine in the nation's capital.
Ironically, Dr. Jonathan Arden, who lost out to Carter in the competition for the job as chief medical examiner of Harris County, is now the front-runner for Carter's old job in D.C.
As for the local criminal investigation, what the doctors say, says Holmes, will determine the next step. He adds that he doubts prosecution would accomplish much since the problem has now been rectified, although the case will be presented to a grand jury.
Nevertheless, Holmes maintains that the rift between himself and Carter has been "blown out of proportion." He says that Carter has been making improvements in the operation of the medical examiner's office -- most importantly, a reduction in the backlog of pending autopsy reports. According to a report by the Harris County budget office, the backlog of cases as of January stood at 217 compared with more than 1,000 cases in September. Holmes says Carter's long-term goal is a seven-day turnaround on autopsy reports. Before Carter's arrival, it was not uncommon for prosecutors to have to wait more than 90 days for the postmortem results.
"What she's wanting to do is exactly why she was high on my list -- the highest on my list -- at the screening," says Holmes. "She thought just like I did and wanted to accomplish what I thought needed to be accomplished. I've kept telling the staff around here: Be patient, she's trying."
But, apparently, Holmes's own patience with Carter was wearing a bit thin last fall. In October, during his deposition in the whistle-blower case, Holmes's testimony indicated that the district attorney was no longer Carter's biggest fan.
"I'm embarrassed by the fact that I supported her, okay?" said Holmes in response to a question during the deposition taken on October 28, 1997. "It is fair to say that if I was voting again, she would be very far down on the list."
Holmes says what he actually meant was that he was embarrassed that he was having to defend Carter so often to members of his staff.
Regardless of what he meant, such testimony could not have helped Carter during the trial. In fact, neither the medical examiner's office nor the district attorney's office has come out looking very good after jurors in two trials involving Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, the former head of the county's DNA lab, have sided with Johnson in the past nine months.
Last month, a Harris County civil court jury awarded $315,000 to Johnson. In reaching their decision in the whistle-blower lawsuit, the jurors concluded that Johnson had been fired in retaliation for her own public clash with the Harris County District Attorney's Office when her analysis of blood samples in a capital murder case did not implicate the prosecution's prime suspect.
In April 1995, Pasadena police arrested Joe Durrett for the bludgeoning deaths of his estranged wife and sister-in-law. Durrett was charged with capital murder after initial tests by the M.E.'s office determined that tufts of hair found in a bloody clump in one of the victim's hands were likely from Durrett.
But the plan to prosecute Durrett hit a major snag when Johnson's analysis of evidence showed that the initial testing had been faulty. Johnson's test revealed that the hair was not Durrett's. She also determined that blood found in Durrett's home was Durrett's rather than either of the victims'. Although the results didn't prove that Durrett was innocent, they certainly didn't connect him to the case, either. In September 1995, Pasadena police seized the evidence and had it double-checked by an independent laboratory in Maryland. Johnson's results were verified by the lab two months later and the charges against Durrett were dropped. But the prosecutors in the case still seemed determined to find fault with Johnson's techniques.
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