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?

Already wearing her scrubs, Carter dons a blue surgical mask and a pair of latex gloves, which she covers with a larger pair of rubber gloves. With a doctor on a forensic training fellowship in tow, Carter proceeds to move around the examination table with the calculated precision and grace of a boxer cornering his opponent, or a painter studying his canvas. She is oblivious to anything else. Slowly, she eyeballs every inch of the man's body, poking here and pulling there. She raises the arms where rigor mortis has already set in. They creak and crack a bit. A gurgling sound comes from somewhere deep inside the man.

With the help of a pathology assistant, who also shoos away the fly that keeps landing on the body, Carter rolls the man over on his side. Because of lividity, or the pooling of blood due to gravity, the man's back has a rosy complexion — in sharp contrast to the rest of him.

For religious reasons, the dead man's family is adamant that an autopsy not be performed. Over the phone, Carter has agreed to conduct only what is referred to as a view, an nonintrusive inspection of the corpse to see if there might be anything suspicious about the man's death. And after giving the corpse a close look, she concludes there is nothing to make her believe that the man died from anything other than natural causes. Carter elects to go no further. While her decision is a professional one, there is a personal element to it as well.

A staff photographer documents the view.
Phillippe Diederich
A staff photographer documents the view.
Firearms manager Matthew D. Clements checks out his new computerized ballistics equipment.
Phillippe Diederich
Firearms manager Matthew D. Clements checks out his new computerized ballistics equipment.

While Carter was a second-year medical student, her father was being treated for emphysema in a hospital when he passed away. It was five o'clock in the morning when Carter received a call from someone wanting to do an autopsy. She refused to grant permission.

"My father was at the point where he couldn't breathe," says Carter. "He didn't need an autopsy, and he did not want an autopsy. And I vowed that I would never do that to a family."

Carter grew up in a middle-class Baptist family with her three older sisters, her schoolteacher mother and brick maker father. Along the way she developed a taste for chicory coffee and bread pudding, and a strong interest in pathology.

While a sophomore in high school in Indianapolis, Indiana, Carter enrolled in a career sampling program and was assigned as a gofer at Eli Lilly, the pharmaceutical giant headquartered in Indianapolis. An avid science student, she was sent one day to Indiana University Medical Center to help retrieve a brain that was being donated to the company for scientific research by the family of a man killed in a motorcycle accident. While she was there, Carter was allowed to watch as doctors removed the organ from the man's skull.

"And I was trapped," says Carter, still excited by the memory. "It was wonderful. I even remember the pedal marks on the bottom of his feet."

After high school, Carter enrolled in Wittenberg University in Springfield, Ohio. From there she went on to medical school at Howard University in Washington, D.C., simultaneously working her way up from the rank of second lieutenant to major in the U.S. Air Force Reserve. Following internships in New York and Washington, D.C., Carter hired on as an associate pathologist with the Miami coroner's office. Next she went on active duty with the Air Force as the armed forces' chief medical examiner. In January 1992, she went to the Washington, D.C., morgue.

Four and a half years later, when Carter quickly agreed to take the top job at the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office, the morgue here was known nationally in the forensic pathology community as one plagued with problems: botched autopsies, unauthorized and illegal tissue harvesting, a backlog of autopsy reports needed by Harris County prosecutors, and charges that well-paid county pathologists were giving priority to private postmortems for which they pocketed handsome fees.

Those problems notwithstanding, Carter signed on, considering Houston an improvement on D.C. The facilities here were better, and the volume of work was less. But the result was immediate friction between herself and some members of the morgue staff.

On her first day on the job — July 22, 1996 — Carter let it be known that there would be changes; that there was a new chief in town, and she intended on doing things her way. Period. She began her reign by meeting with every division in the office, but took the rather impersonal approach of reading the employees a prepared statement.

"I stated that I'm a strong person who is highly motivated," says Carter, "responsible for my actions and always moving toward my goals. And that's where I am. Cut me in the middle, and that's what you're going to see. I like to do it by the book."

The message and the tone rubbed some morgue employees the wrong way. One of the first to get crossways with the new chief was Dr. Elizabeth Johnson, the former head of the morgue's DNA laboratory.

In 1995, Johnson's findings in a murder case contradicted the conclusions of prosecutors and Pasadena police homicide investigators who were intent on charging Joe Durrett with capital murder in the bludgeoning deaths of his wife and sister-in-law. Johnson insisted that blood and hair evidence found at the murder scene did not connect Durrett to the crimes. The district attorney's office publicly questioned Johnson's DNA techniques. Despite that pressure, Johnson stuck to her conclusion and eventually testified for the defense. Durrett was acquitted, marking the first time in 23 years that the district attorney's office had failed to successfully try a capital murder case.

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