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?

"She wants some of us to leave," says one doctor, "but I tell the others not to quit because we are a boil on her butt. She doesn't think anyone knows as much as she does. Morale is very low."

But that's not the way Pat Banks, the office's chief investigator, sees it. According to Banks, with all due respect to her old boss, Dr. Joe, Carter has brought the M.E.'s office out of the Stone Age.

"We've gotten a lot more specialized training," says Banks, whose team of nine investigators goes to homicides and other violent death scenes around the county. "In the past there were some things that should have been done that weren't done."

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

Banks points specifically to the soon-to-be-implemented program of the morgue having its own fleet of body pickup cars. In the past the county has relied upon local funeral homes to bring bodies to the morgue, a practice that risked contamination of evidence, in addition to being viewed as somewhat unethical, since the funeral home that collected the body would obviously have a head start in providing funeral services for the dead person's family. Additionally, she says, work at the morgue has been streamlined by the acquisition of a computer system that allows investigators and pathologists to send their reports directly to the district attorney's office via the Internet.

However, Banks concedes that morale in some quarters of the medical examiner's office is still a problem.

"We have a few people here who have their sights set on destroying this office and her," says Banks. "And they will go to any lengths to do it. Why? Because they feel like they have been mistreated when, in fact, they have not."

But in the opinion of the one assistant pathologist, the committee that was charged with selecting a successor to Dr. Joe did a poor job by deciding upon Carter. He suggests there is something less-than-proper about the fact that although Carter became chief medical examiner of Harris County in July 1996, she did not obtain her own Texas medical license until August 1996.

However, one member of that selection committee has heard about all he cares to hear from those at the morgue who continue to complain about their new boss. Despite their past disputes, which he says have been exaggerated, District Attorney Holmes says that getting rid of some of the disgruntled employees at the morgue might not be such a bad idea and that he is personally weary of the in-house carping about Carter.

"Over here [at the D.A.'s office] we have what's called employment at will," says Holmes. "And I'm not going to continue to keep somebody on my staff that keeps throwing rocks at me."

But instead of mass firings, lately Carter has taken a more subtle — and probably more effective — approach in dealing with her image problems, if not her legal ones.

Although she began her tenure as chief medical examiner by inviting the local media to an open house at the morgue, as controversy surrounding the office began to mount, Carter seemed to develop a bunker mentality. Seldom was she available to answer a reporter's question, and she was notorious for not returning calls from journalists. Over the past few months, however, Carter seems to have launched her own public relations campaign. In addition to responding to media inquiries in a timely fashion, she even held a rare news conference to clear the air over one of the most recent problems to beset the M.E.'s office.

On May 14, 1999, the body of three-year-old Victoria Grant, who suffered from spina bifida, was discovered inside a locked van at Miss Lucy's Academy on Homestead Road in northeast Houston. In the wake of the tragedy, a dispute developed over the cause of the little girl's death. Although it was suspected that she died of hyperthermia, or elevated body temperature, Carter says that could not be definitely determined because neither paramedics at the scene nor officials at LBJ took the little girl's body temperature.

After the issue became a hot item on the evening television news, Carter responded with a press conference. She used the occasion to take a few shots at her critics — at the morgue and in the media — by suggesting that much of the criticism that has been leveled at her the past three years has been of a racist and sexist nature. And she remained firm on that point in a recent interview with the Press.

"There are some overtones — primarily from the outside — of, I'd say, sexism, and then maybe race secondary," says Carter. "This position has never been filled by a woman [or an African-American]. I came into this place following a gentleman who had been in this place 37 years. He was an institution, and this building is the result of his hard work. But having been a unique individual for most of my career, I was not surprised when that [racism/sexism] happened."

In addition to Carter's being more available to the media in general, this very article was initiated after a representative of a Houston victims' rights group, who also did not want to be identified, approached the Press about the idea of taking a fresh look at the medical examiner, since some of the paper's past coverage had not cast her in the most favorable light.

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