A Coroner System in Crisis: The Scandals and Struggles Plaguing Louisiana Death Investigation

Author:Robert D. Felder

I. Introduction. A. "The CSI Effect" and Public Misconceptions Regarding Louisiana Death Investigations. B. The Louisiana System Has Many Problems. C. The McCormick Scandal. D. The Time for Reform is Now. II. Background. III. Analysis. A. Current Structure of the Louisiana Coroner System. 1. Where the Office of the Coroner Fits in our Governmental Structure. 2. The Role of the Coroner in... (see full summary)


I would like to sincerely thank Professor Edward. P. Richards for all of the assistance and advice he provided to me during this project. I would also like to sincerely thank my Senior and Peer Editors of the Louisiana Law Review, the Research Librarians at the Paul M. Hebert Law Center Library, Iberia Parish Coroner Dr. James Falterman, Sr., and Roy Provost of the Louisiana Forensic Center.

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I Introduction
A "The CSI Effect" and Public Misconceptions Regarding Louisiana Death Investigations

In today's world of highly glamorized forensic science dramas, such as CSI, the public has developed grave misconceptions about what realistically can be accomplished and what is statutorily required in the performance of a forensic death investigation.12Though many Americans are led to believe the world of death investigation is filled with highly educated professionals using cutting edge investigative techniques in order to quickly solve crime, many death investigations are limited in their scope and effectiveness by outdated laws, insufficient regulation, and poor funding.3 In the real world, death investigations are time consuming and resource draining, often only providing probable or likely scenarios rather than hard and fast answers about what actually occurred.4

A distinct problem facing death investigations throughout the United States derives from both the laws that qualify those who may perform death investigations and the great discretion the laws give to these officers.5 Many officers have no specialized medical or legal training, and death investigation offices commonly lack higher government supervision and regulation.6 Because Page 628 evidentiary findings by death investigators can be crucial to the outcome of both criminal and civil cases, mistakes and wrongdoings at the hands of death investigators can lead to great injustices.7 Whether a mistake leads to the wrongful conviction of the innocent, allows the guilty to go free, or allows an unjust award of damages, the ramifications of an ineptly governed death investigation system are felt throughout the entire justice system.8

B The Louisiana System Has Many Problems

In Louisiana, death investigations are governed by the statutes that regulate the Louisiana coroner system.9This statutory scheme gives coroners great discretion in the scope and performance of death investigations. At the same time, however, it does little to ensure that coroners are qualified to make the decisions they are statutorily required to make.

While the statutes governing the Louisiana coroner system create ample opportunity for costly mistakes, this is far from the only problem facing the system. Because coroners, as elected officials, are independent state officers, they go largely unsupervised by higher governmental enforcement bodies.10 This lack of supervision, coupled with a deficient and outdated statutory scheme, creates additional opportunity for mistakes and improper practices.11 Recently, this overarching lack of supervision over Louisiana coroners made headlines when the practices of Dr. George McCormick were exposed.12 Page 629

C The McCormick Scandal

In the fall of 2005, shortly after Hurricane Katrina,13Dr. George McCormick, the longtime Caddo Parish Coroner, died unexpectedly from a massive heart attack.14 For years, many parishes in North Louisiana, including Caddo Parish, had contracted with Dr. McCormick's private autopsy business, Forensic Pathology, Inc., to perform a majority of their forensic autopsies.15 Shortly after the death of McCormick, news began to break of alleged scandals involving the McCormick office and his private autopsy business.16 Soon thereafter, investigators learned that longtime McCormick investigator (and employee of his private autopsy business), Lisa Hayes, forged Dr. McCormick's signature on certain documents purporting to name Hayes as the coroner of Caddo Parish in the event of McCormick's death.17

In the spring of 2006, more serious allegations regarding the practices of Forensic Pathology, Inc. began to make headlines.18Because she was granted immunity from prosecution, Lisa Hayes agreed to testify fully as to the practices employed by McCormick's office during the performance of autopsies. 19Hayes has since testified that in approximately 80% of the autopsies performed over what was approximately a seven year period by McCormick's business, she fully performed autopsies without the presence or supervision of McCormick.20 Hayes, who was not a physician, performed external examinations of bodies, photographed the bodies, removed clothes and evidence, and then fully eviscerated the bodies.21 She tracked bullet paths, measured gunshot wounds, and removed bullets from bodies in homicide cases, often without any supervision from McCormick Page 630 whatsoever.22 Hayes also admitted to forging McCormick's signature on numerous death certificates as well as writing McCormick's initials when sealing evidence containers.23

On a usual day, McCormick would come into the office around 5:00 p.m., take notes from what Hayes gathered during her performance of the autopsy, and then, at a later time, he would compose his autopsy report based on her notes.24 McCormick would subsequently testify to the findings of the autopsies under oath, asserting that these findings were based on autopsies performed by him, therefore perjuring himself numerous times.25These practices continued until Dr. McCormick's death on September 20, 2005.26

Since the discovery of the improper procedures employed by McCormick's office, numerous motions have been made by defense attorneys. As the investigation into the practices and procedures employed by McCormick is still ongoing today, homicide convictions and other cases that included testimony and evidence based upon the findings of McCormick's office will continue to be challenged.27

D The Time for Reform is Now

The lack of supervision that allowed the McCormick scandal to occur is disturbing-especially when one considers that Dr. McCormick was a forensic pathologist with years of pathology training.28 When one imagines what could occur in the offices of certain coroners that have no training in pathology, this lack of supervision becomes even more frightening.29 All this, combined with Louisiana's statutory scheme that gives coroners great discretion in how to handle death investigations, makes one realize that Louisiana's death investigation system is ripe with opportunity for impropriety, mistakes, and the occurrence of further injustices. Page 631

This Comment analyzes the problems with Louisiana's coroner system, beginning with Part II, which looks at the history and evolution of death investigation and how it has influenced Louisiana law. Part III of this Comment examines the laws that establish and govern the Louisiana coroner system, looking carefully at where the coroner's office fits within our legislative scheme and what the role of the coroner entails during death investigations. Part IV of this Comment analyzes specific problems that arise from the current laws governing the coroner system. Part V compares Louisiana death investigation laws with those of other jurisdictions. Finally, Part VI proposes suggestions to improve the Louisiana death investigation system.

II Background

Forensic death investigation of the human body is generally referred to today as medicolegal death investigation. 30 Medicolegal death investigation combines medicine and law in order to ascertain the relevant facts that lead to determinations of the cause and manner of death.31 Investigative techniques combining the likes of law and medicine have been around for thousands of years. 32Although similar approaches to death investigation have been seen worldwide throughout history, none has had more of an impact on the current United States and Louisiana death investigation systems than the English coroner system.33

The coroner system, as it is known today, was established by the English kings during the middle ages.34 Originally, coroners were called "crowners."35 Crowners were knights appointed by the king of England to investigate deaths in which the crown had a Page 632 property interest.36 When the death of someone in the kingdom occurred, the kings saw this as an opportunity to acquire property.37 Therefore, kings charged the...

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