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Coroners' mistakes can lead to conviction of innocent people: Part 2

The previous post began to discuss a recent investigative report by NPR in partnership with ProPublica and PBS Frontline on the state of the death investigation system in the U.S. The investigative reporters found that the system is deeply flawed and in need of an overhaul. The combination of inadequately trained coroners (who do not need to be physicians) and lack of funding and oversight of the death investigation process has led to innocent people being charged and convicted of crimes.

NPR tells the story of two Mississippi men who were charged in two separate crimes two years apart. Both crimes involved the sexual assault and murder of two different three-year-old girls. Both girls' bodies were autopsied by the same coroner. The pathologist believed that the girls had each been bitten. A forensic dentist testified in each trial that the bite marks matched the charged men.

The men were exonerated through DNA evidence in 2008. A new suspect was also found through the same DNA evidence and he has since confessed to the sex crimes and murders and is awaiting trial. A more fully-trained forensics expert may have determined what an expert panel later testified -- that the supposed bite marks on the girls' bodies were probably caused by decomposition or animals in the water where the bodies were found.

According to NPR, two years ago a blue ribbon panel created by the National Academy of Sciences reported on the state of death investigations in the U.S. and recommended that all states make it a priority to hire board certified forensic pathologists as medical examiners (who are appointed and are physicians).


Post Mortem: Death Investigation in America (NPR)

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