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?

During a tour of the morgue last month, Carter showed off the office's new state-of-the-art firearms lab that just recently went on-line and gives area law enforcement agencies the ability to crosscheck ballistics and firearms reports from crime scenes across the county.

Carter also took advantage of the time to focus on other improvements she has brought about during her three years on the job. In addition to the computerization of the office and the purchase of the body car fleet, Carter rightly points to the reduction of the number of autopsies performed by her pathologists each year.

When she started, Harris County pathologists conducted close to 500 autopsies per year each. The National Association of Medical Examiners recommends that a pathologist perform no more than 300 autopsies a year. Although they have not yet reached that level, Carter says her doctors now average about 425 postmortems a year. She wants to reduce that workload even further by hiring additional doctors, in order to give pathologists time to make some of the scenes of the deaths they are investigating.

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

She also outlawed tissue harvesting without the consent of a dead person's family. (The medical examiner's, district attorney's and county attorney's offices are all battling a company called LifeGift Organ Donation Center of Houston that recently removed the organs of a homicide victim over the objections of an assistant medical examiner — something the D.A.'s office says could jeopardize prosecution of the case.)

Carter also emphasized that she wants to make her office more user-friendly to prosecutors and police officers. Early on, there were reports of friction between Carter and some homicide investigators. But according to sources from the district attorney's office, who also did not wish to be named, their relations with the Carter medical examiner's office have improved in recent months.

"I called her one day and said I needed to discuss a case," says one prosecutor, "and she asked me what time I'd like for her to be in my office. I was kind of shocked."

In addition to improving her office's relations with law enforcement, Carter says, she also wants to make dealing with the morgue easier for the general public.

"Families just want to know what happened [to their deceased loved ones]," says Carter. "And when the physician clams up and says nothing, that family grows suspicious. People just want to know."

The family of the late Michael Theodore Keller couldn't agree more.

This past May 16, Keller, a 77-year-old gay man known for befriending street youths, was viciously beaten inside his Montrose-area apartment. He died at the Veterans Administration hospital three days later. However, Keller had long suffered from emphysema, and assistant medical examiner Paul Shrode ruled Keller's death a natural one, the result of a pulmonary embolism due to chronic heart disease. The ruling puzzled members of Keller's family who wondered if perhaps the pummeling that Keller received hadn't exacerbated his condition and sped his death. And they were also irritated by their inability to get anyone from the M.E.'s office to discuss the case.

"I kept leaving messages, but I've heard nothing," says Keller's sister, Lee Hastings of Dallas.

But according to Carter, she believes that the Keller case deserves a second look.

"We are going to meet with the investigators and go over the medical records again," says Carter. "What I always say to my staff is you've got to look at what got the person in the hospital in the first place. We have to go back and look at all the known information."

Indeed, during her three years as chief medical examiner, Carter has not shied away from reopening cases.

For example, shortly after coming on board in 1996, Carter ordered the exhumation of Donald Chaline, a key figure in the solving of four contract murders in Houston in the late 1970s. She also had unearthed the body of Paul Beauchamp, who died under mysterious circumstances in Montgomery County in December 1993. Recently Carter expressed interest in reopening the case of Carmine Basso, who was found dead in his office/apartment in May 1997, after his common-law widow, Susan, was charged with capital murder in the torture death of a 59-year-old mentally retarded man. However, Carter now says there are no current plans to dig up Basso, who was ruled to have died from erosion of the esophagus.

"It certainly is an unusual case," says Carter. "But we are not going to exhume the body at this time. It's certainly going to be marked forever as a very unusual case. It makes you wonder. And if more comes to light, we will look at it again."

Carter gets high marks in the forthrightness department these days even from attorney DeGuerin. However, last month DeGuerin defended a former Houston police officer charged with murder in the shooting death of his neighbor. Although the former officer was convicted, DeGuerin was pleased that Carter did not come off as an advocate for the prosecution but, instead, was a neutral provider of information.

"I was impressed with her testimony," says DeGuerin. "She played it straight."

Even Cindy Kilborn, the Harris County Health Department's chief of epidemiology, has softened her stance on Carter. As chair of the Houston-Harris County Child Fatality Review Team, Kilborn had previously clashed with Carter over what Kilborn saw as Carter's disinterest in the team, whose job it is to review the deaths of all children in the Houston-Harris County area. Kilborn now says most of those differences have been resolved. Although Kilborn says Carter has not allowed Dr. Patricia Moore, an associate pathologist and forensic pediatric specialist at the morgue, to be on the review team as Kilborn had requested, "she is making efforts to cooperate with us."

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