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?

Although the Durrett case had begun before Carter's arrival, seven months after Durrett's acquittal, Johnson was fired as DNA chief for allegedly repeatedly working at unauthorized times in violation of the new morgue rules set down by Carter. However, Johnson filed a whistle-blower lawsuit claiming she was terminated for not playing ball with the prosecution. In February of last year, a civil court jury agreed and awarded her $315,000.

A few months before the jury's verdict in the whistle-blower trial, Carter found herself in the unenviable position of butting heads with Harris County District Attorney Johnny Holmes, someone with a personality as strong or stronger than Carter's. Carter was quoted by the Houston Chronicle as describing Holmes as "unprofessional" and a member of the "old boys club." Although he and Captain Richard Holland of the Houston Police Department's homicide division had been two of Carter's primary supporters during the selection process, during his deposition in the Johnson case, Holmes stated that he was "embarrassed" by the fact that he had backed Carter.

The district attorney later claimed that his statement had been misinterpreted and that the differences between himself and Carter had been blown out of proportion. But that did not stop Holmes or his office from taking a close look at two other cases — cases that continue to give Carter trouble — with overlapping elements involving two other Harris County pathologists: Dr. Marilyn Murr and Dr. Delbert Van Dusen.

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

In April 1997, 12-year-old Laura Smither left her home in Friendswood for a morning jog and never returned. Seventeen days later, after an exhaustive search of the area by authorities and hundreds of volunteers, Smither's decapitated and badly decomposed body was discovered in a retention pond in Pasadena. The remains were taken to the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office for identification and to determine the cause of death. That autopsy, which concluded that Smither's death was a homicide, was performed by Murr — with assistance from Carter. And it also set in motion a series of events that eventually led to Murr's termination as an assistant pathologist at the morgue and, in return, her filing of a whistle-blower lawsuit against Carter and the county.

In a deposition taken in connection with the lawsuit, Carter said that during the evening of the Smither autopsy she split time between two examining rooms: one where Smither's visibly shaken dentist was inspecting the girl's skull to establish a dental identification; the other where Murr was working on what remained of the rest of Smither's body.

"I gave her instruction on how to label evidence that was retained and being turned over [to authorities]," testified Carter. "I also instructed her to deflesh the lower part of the body to see if there was any injury that might be hidden by soft tissue that might have been on the surface of the bones, particularly the pelvic area."

According to the actual autopsy report, loose hair and fibers were collected from the body and placed in evidence bags for safekeeping, and then were turned over to the Pasadena Police Department. A clump of hair was collected from one of Smither's fingers. Following DNA testing by the Department of Public Safety, the hair was determined to have come from a black man or woman. That revelation posed potential serious problems for Friendswood police since their prime suspect was a white male. (To date, no one has been charged with Smither's death.)

Although there is no specific mention of it in her lawsuit, after filing the litigation, according to the Chronicle, Murr accused Carter of trying to talk her into changing the autopsy report by listing the hair in question as merely contamination instead of evidence since the autopsy of Rene Crouch, a young black woman, had been conducted in the same room just hours earlier. But in her deposition, Carter denied that charge.

"There was still physical evidence on the body," said Carter. "And we, together, looked at the left hand, looked at the ring, saw the hair there. And I said, 'Oh, let's document this. Get a picture.' "

The dispute over the Smither autopsy continued to fester for the next several months. Then, in February of last year, the situation came to a head when District Attorney Holmes confirmed that his office was investigating allegations that, in possible violation of state law, hundreds of autopsies had been performed at the Harris County morgue by associate pathologist Dr. Delbert Van Dusen who, although licensed in Indiana and Georgia, did not hold a Texas license. Those allegations were brought to Holmes by Murr, who had secretly tape-recorded a number of conversations with Carter. Both Carter and Van Dusen appeared before a Harris County grand jury.

Not long after turning over the tapes to Holmes, Murr was fired by Carter. Three months later, Murr filed her own whistle-blower lawsuit, charging that her dismissal was retaliation for bringing forth the information about Van Dusen, as well as her stance in the Smither case.

In her deposition in the Murr lawsuit, each time Carter was asked about the Van Dusen case, she refused to answer, citing her Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. However, in a recent interview with the Press, the chief medical examiner acknowledged that it had been a mistake for her to hire Van Dusen, whom she describes as an excellent physician, without his having a state medical license, a practice that, according to reports in The Washington Post, was apparently not uncommon at the Washington, D.C., morgue.

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