Approaching Death At The County Morgue

For three years as Harris County's chief medical examiner, Dr. Joye Carter has been haunted by controversy. Can she survive?

When the Harris County Commissioners Court offered Dr. Joye Maureen Carter the job as the area's chief medical examiner just over three years ago, she didn't hesitate to accept. According to Carter, the morgue facilities in Washington, D.C., where she had become the first black female chief medical examiner in the country, were in a state of disrepair. There was no hot water in the building. There was no toilet paper. She and her employees carried in their own rolls.

One member of the Harris County selection committee, who knew about the state of the Washington restrooms, even joked to Carter during her job interview that "we don't run out of toilet paper here."

Well, there may be an ample supply of TP at the Harris County morgue, but that hasn't stopped the shit from hitting the fan since Carter's arrival. And she has had more hot water than she knows what to do with.

Dr. Carter has been fascinated by pathology since her teens.
Phillippe Diederich
Dr. Carter has been fascinated by pathology since her teens.

As someone who works with the dead, Carter admits she looks at — and deals with — the living differently than most people.

"I look at the color of your eyes," she says. "How often you blink and how your facial features are supported by muscles."

It's enough to make a less-than-self-confident visitor head for the nearest mirror to see if he has a piece of lettuce spotting his front teeth, or some other kind of tic or blemish that could reveal a previously hidden character flaw.

So it comes as no surprise that Carter's personal and professional observations frequently chafe members of her staff — so much so that some of them, both past and present, have resorted to a sort of guerrilla-style public relations campaign. With increasing frequency over the past several months, negative information about Carter has been passed on to the members of the media and high-ranking Harris County officials with the intent of undermining her authority.

Of course, some of the discord can be written off as inevitable; that 37 months ago, when Carter replaced Dr. Joseph Jachimczyk — a local icon referred to as Dr. Joe, who held the position of chief medical examiner for 37 years — she was bound to meet with resistance to the changes needed in an office that had become both professionally unaccountable and technologically outdated. And to Carter's credit, many of those desperately needed reforms either have been implemented or will be in the very near future.

But make no mistake, although she can be charming and engaging, and is obviously passionate about her work, Carter can also come across as cold, humorless and even a little arrogant more often than she probably realizes. For example, when asked recently by the Houston Press what she could have done differently since taking over as chief medical examiner, she paused for a moment and then said bluntly, "Well, I guess I could have gotten rid of a lot of the staff."

It isn't that Carter hasn't fired anybody; she just may have fired the wrong ones. Two of her dismissals have resulted in whistle-blower lawsuits being filed. The first one cost the county $315,000. The second one — centered on the revelation that Carter knowingly used a physician unlicensed in Texas to perform hundreds of autopsies — could cost the medical examiner her job at a time when it appearsshe has finally turned the corner in her struggle to establish herself as the right person to succeed a legend.

Earlier this month, the state Board of Medical Examiners announced that Carter faces censure, fines and even the possible — although not probable — revocation of her own state medical license for allowing autopsies to be conducted by a doctor without a license to practice medicine in Texas. And at least one member of the Harris County Commissioners Court, the governmental body to which she answers, seems to have had just about enough of her continuing three-year saga.

"I don't like the phone calls I get," bristles Commissioner Steve Radack, who these days refuses even to meet with Carter. "I don't like the lawsuits that we get in. And I'm very concerned."

Of course, Radack and Carter have never gotten along. Radack opposed hiring Carter in the first place and supported another candidate for the job. But if the state Board of Medical Examiners does, in fact, censure Carter — or worse — the other members of commissioners court could find it difficult to continue to stand behind her, regardless of how many improvements she has implemented, or how good she is at what she does.

With her close-cropped salt-and-pepper hair, medium build, sharp facial features and demeanor of singular purpose, Dr. Joye Carter cuts a distinguished figure as she moves about one of the first-floor autopsy rooms of the Dr. Joseph A. Jachimczyk Forensic Center. On a stainless-steel examining table lies the lifeless body of a naked elderly man. Earlier in the day, family members discovered the dead man in the bathtub of his hotel room where he had been staying while undergoing intensive treatment at a Houston hospital for cancer. From all appearances, the man seems to have died of natural causes. However, because he was found in the tub, the body has been brought to the morgue for examination.

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