Dissecting Dr. Carter

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

In February 1996, Johnson's records in five investigations in which her findings had contradicted the prosecution's theory -- including the Durrett case --were subpoenaed by a Harris County grand jury. The records were then turned over to two local independent DNA experts for review. Once again, neither of the reviewers could find a problem with Johnson's work.

Undeterred by the lack of scientific evidence against Durrett, in December 1996, prosecutors were able to have their prime suspect reindicted for capital murder. That same month, five months after Carter had taken over as chief medical examiner of Harris County, Johnson was fired from her job as head of the M.E.'s DNA lab. Johnson took a job with a laboratory in California but returned to Houston to testify as a defense witness in Durrett's trial. On May 13, 1997, Durrett became the only defendant in Harris County to be acquitted of capital murder charges during Holmes's almost 19 years as district attorney.

A second Harris County jury also sided with Johnson when, last month, it concluded that Johnson had been fired from the medical examiner's officer in retal-iation for failing to keep quiet about her findings in the Durrett case. The jurors awarded Johnson $315,000 plus attorneys' fees. She had been seeking $1.5 million. The county plans to appeal the jury's verdict.

One of Johnson's attorneys, criminal defense lawyer Dick DeGuerin, believes the district attorney's office made a mistake by challenging Johnson's test results.

"What they should have done was rally around her and say 'our results are our results, take it or leave,' " says DeGuerin. "Instead, she had to go through what she went through."

DeGuerin also believes the investigation could give Holmes leverage over Carter. The defense attorney points out that before her dismissal, Johnson had notified the district attorney's office that she believed someone had intentionally contaminated some of the chemicals she used for conducting tests in the DNA lab. Rather than have his office investigate the allegation, Holmes turned the matter over to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

"By the same token," says DeGuerin, "when it appears that Joye Carter has allowed an unlicensed doctor to practice there, Holmes starts an investigation right away. Because he can influence Joye Carter by threatening her with some kind of criminal investigation."

As for the performance of Carter herself, DeGuerin believes the new medical examiner had an opportunity to do great things when she first came on board. But he fears that opportunity has been missed.

"What she should have done was a housecleaning of all the deadwood in that office," says DeGuerin. "But what's happened is she's let the deadwood remain and take over."

Harris County Commissioner El Franco Lee takes a much different view of Carter's performance. Lee, an African-American, is the only minority and Carter's biggest backer on Commissioners Court, the governmental body to which Carter answers. Lee concedes he has been concerned about trouble between Carter and Holmes, but he believes some of that friction is the result of problems such as the backlog of autopsies that Carter inherited, which take time to remedy. Lee also sees nothing wrong with Carter hiring her own attorney, calling it a "a prudent thing to do, given everything that is at stake."

The commissioner also maintains that the Houston medical community, especially the Texas Medical Center, is extremely pleased with Carter, who, unlike Jachimczyk, has opened up the county morgue to the pathology departments of the TMC's teaching facilities. Spokespersons for Baylor College of Medicine and the University of Texas Medical School say their pathology departments are in the process of setting up programs to allow pathology department residents the option of taking an elective rotation at the morgue, where they will be allowed to observe autopsies and case evaluations.

But Carter's relationship with other members of the Houston medical community is not quite so collegial, according to copies of correspondence between Carter and the past chair of the Houston/Harris County Child Fatality Review Team obtained by the Press. Before Carter became the county's chief pathologist, members of the review team had complained that the medical examiner's office had terminated that office's participation in the group comprised of various local health and law enforcement agencies concerned with the Houston area's high child mortality rate. Although Carter has re-established the M.E. office's participation in the activities of the review team, the abrasive wording of some of her letters has occasionally given the impression that she has little use for its members.

In a July 1997 letter to the then-chair of the review team, Harris County Health Department epidemiologist Cindy Kilborn, Carter flatly suggested that the review team might better serve a public-relations role as opposed to an investigative one. The medical examiner also made it clear that she didn't really care if her opinions rubbed some members the wrong way.

"I have learned that team members were offended by the distribution of my previous letter," concluded Carter. "I remind you and the other members that I am a government worker and this review team is not a private club."

In her response, Kilborn noted that, the month before, a pathologist at the M.E.'s office had determined that sudden infant death syndrome had been the cause of a child's death. Kilborn added that the pathologist who made the ruling changed it to asphyxia after the review team informed him that the adult responsible for the baby had consumed a large amount of alcohol and was sleeping with the child at the time of the baby's death.

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