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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

"I hope this will be cleared up," says Carter. "It's very unfortunate, and I had no idea I was putting him in such a terrible position. I thought it was my right as chief to delegate that responsibility."

But she has put not only Van Dusen in a terrible position, but herself as well. Late last month, the grand jury investigating the matter declined to issue any indictments against Van Dusen, who still does not have his Texas license, or anyone else connected to the investigation. However, a few days later, the state Board of Medical Examiners filed a formal complaint against Carter, charging that she was aware that Van Dusen did not have a Texas medical license but allowed him to perform autopsies anyway. The board staff issued a recommendation for Carter to be formally reprimanded and fined up to $50,000. However, as the law is written, she could also face the revocation of her own license, although it's unlikely. A hearing is set for November 15. Murr's civil suit against Carter is scheduled to begin on November 22.

With two court proceedings within the next few months on her plate, it's not like Carter doesn't already have enough to worry about. And even though she would never admit that it is getting to her, in addition to her legal battles, the chief medical examiner must also deal with a mutinous section of her staff — both current and former. And while the number of those taking part in the rebellion is debatable, over the past year or so they have often succeeded in making their presence and displeasure felt.

During that time, rarely has a month passed without reporters and politicians receiving a fax or letter — sometimes anonymous, sometimes not — citing what the mutineers claim to be the latest crime against nature committed by Carter. The communiqués have ranged from complaints about clogged drains to gruesome photographs of body-stacking to the disappearance of a painting of Dr. Jachimczyk to a body that had yet to be examined being sent to a funeral home where it was cremated.

As for the painting of Dr. Joe, which used to be on display in the morgue's lobby, Carter says someone attempted to vandalize the portrait and it is now located in the more secure environs of the facility's conference room. (Portraits of the five members of commissioners court now grace the morgue's lobby.) The drains at the M.E.'s office, admits Carter, do sometimes become clogged. When that happens, she says, the building's maintenance crew repairs them and it is not a problem. She says she has no excuse for the body that was mistakenly cremated, except for the fact that close to 5,000 bodies move through the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office each year.

"Yes, we had that one body that was unfortunately released and was cremated," says Carter. "We can't go back and undo that. But I think for the volume we handle, we do pretty well."

As for the allegations of body-stacking at the morgue, Carter flat-out denies that it happens. She maintains, instead, that the photos were staged — something that attorney Dick DeGuerin, as well as several morgue employees, emphatically says is not true.

In June, KHOU-TV (Channel 11) broadcast a report on the medical examiner's office stating that an investigation by the Harris County Sheriff's Office into the body-stacking charges was dropped when it was learned that the photos of bodies were actually "taken almost 20 years ago, in 1980." Earlier this month, DeGuerin fired off a letter to the station demanding that the report be corrected.

"That statement [about the pictures being 20 years old] is false," wrote DeGuerin, who has represented several disgruntled members of the morgue staff. "Whoever supplied your news organization with that statement was not telling the truth. In fact, the photographs were taken by Alex Escobar, a current employee of the Medical Examiner's Office, August 3, 1998."

DeGuerin added that the investigation was actually dropped after he and Escobar, a pathology assistant whom he represents, met with Harris County Judge Robert Eckels.

(According to DeGuerin, Channel 11 officials acknowledged their mistake but said they have no plans to run a correction because too much time has passed since the original broadcast. Mike Devlin, the station's news director, declined to comment other than to say that DeGuerin "can say whatever he wants." "I'm just not going to get into this," he added.)

Carter continues to dismiss the underground attempts to undermine her authority as the work of a few disgruntled employees. While preparing this story, the Press spoke with several unhappy morgue workers, who asked that their names not be used for fear of retaliation, who insist that there are more than a mere handful of malcontents. And, they say, they are actually sad that the situation has deteriorated because many of them saw Carter as the person who would turn the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office around after years of decline because of a lack of oversight.

"But it has gotten worse," says one assistant pathologist. "We are going backward."

Of particular concern to some of the assistant medical examiners is their perception that their salaries have been cut since Carter became chief. And, in fact, they have. But the largest loss of income for the pathologists, who already make between $70,000 and $120,000 in wages from the county, was going to happen regardless of who became the new chief medical examiner. In the past, assistant pathologists were allowed to pocket $400 of the $900 the county used to charge to perform autopsies for other neighboring counties. However, a Peat Marwick audit of that practice revealed that those autopsy reports were being given priority over those needed by Harris County prosecutors. County commissioners decided to end the policy of allowing assistant pathologists to double-dip long before Carter's arrival, although it fell to her to implement the reform. Since Carter's arrival, the doctors at the morgue have also had their county cars taken away from them. Some of the doctors say they are now confronted with a take-it-or-leave-it attitude.

"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."

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.

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.

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."

It is hoped, for Carter's sake, this newfound spirit of cooperation has not come too late. But it may not be enough for her to overcome the legal battles still ahead, especially the hearing that could lead to a possible censure by the state Board of Medical Examiners. Harris County Judge Robert Eckels, one of Carter's chief supporters, says only that a censure is something he and the other members of commissioners court will have to deal with at the time.

"It would depend," says Eckels, "upon the sanction, and what it was for."

Sitting in the conference room of the Dr. Joseph A. Jachimczyk Forensic Center, with the portrait of Dr. Joe on the wall behind her, Dr. Joye Carter concludes an interview with the Press by declaring that she believes the majority of her employees support the job she is doing and are eager to get on with the business of investigating death instead of dodging in-house sniper fire.

"This is a fighting staff," says Carter. "And the staff is tired of this stuff. We're all kind of tired of it. And we have work to do."

Indeed, they do — and have. But after three years on the job, Dr. Joye Carter might still find it difficult to be confident that she'll be around long enough to finish what she started.

E-mail Steve McVicker at steve_mcvicker@houstonpress.com.

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