Dr. Michael Berkland arrested for keeping human organs in storage locker

Booking photo of Michael Berkland, DO

On September 2, 2012, I posted a quick story about a large number of human organs being found in a storage locker in Florida previously rented by a forensic pathologist, Dr. Michael Berkland.

No charges had been filed against Dr. Berkland when I wrote the original post, and it was not clear whether he had broken any laws.

Well, things have changed.  Dr. Berkland was arrested on September 7, 2012 and charged with “…improper storage of hazardous waste, keeping a public nuisance and driving with a suspended license.”

An attorney for the state says more charges may be filed.

According to ABC News, Dr. Berkland faces up to 5 years in prison.

In addition to the criminal charges he faces, I have to wonder if the families of those whose organs Dr. Berkland allegedly stored in the locker will come after him with civil suits.

Readers will of course recall the very recent $2 million verdict against a Florida hospital, a pathologist and the pathologist’s practice for the way in which they handled the organs of the plaintiff’s mother after her autopsy.  That case was a little different because the organs in question were destroyed, whereas these were kept.

Seeing as some of the organs in the storage locker were found in soda cups and food containers, I imagine there could be many unhappy families out there.

Dr. Berkland was released on $10,000 bond.

 

Source:  Dr. Michael Berkland, former medical examiner, arrested for storing human body parts in Fla. storage unit – Crimesider – CBS News

 

(CBS/AP) PENSACOLA, Fla. – Police arrested former medical examiner Michael Berkland on Friday for allegedly keeping crudely preserved human remains in a rented storage unit in Florida last month.

Berkland, 57, was charged with of improper storage of hazardous waste, keeping a public nuisance and driving with a suspended license. He was released on $10,000 bail.

State Attorney Bill Eddins said more charges may be filed. Berkland’s attorney, Eric Stevenson, reportedly said that he and Berkland will start preparing their defense next week.

Crudely preserved brains, hearts, lungs and other organs and specimens were discovered in more than 100 containers last month in a Pensacola storage unit that Berkland rented for about three years. The unit was auctioned off after Berkland defaulted on his payments, according to an arrest affidavit.

Ten cardboard boxes stacked in a corner of the unit contained “numerous individual containers with … human remains stored in a liquid substance,” according to the affidavit.

Berkland declared the contents to be household goods, furniture, boxes, sporting goods and landscaping equipment. A man who bought the unit’s contents discovered the human organs after becoming overpowered by a strange smell while sifting through the items, authorities said.

Most of the containers were labeled. About half the containers were medical grade and the other half included soda cups and plastic food containers, according to the affidavit.

Authorities said the organs were stored in a liquid solution containing formaldehyde and methyl alcohol.

“The remains included tissue samples and dissected organs. (Investigators) also advised that there were numerous whole organs, including hearts, brains, a liver and a lung,” according to the affidavit.

Berkland worked at the District 1 Medical Examiner’s Office in Pensacola from 1997. He was fired in 2003 for not completing autopsy reports. Berkland’s license to serve as a medical examiner in Florida was also withdrawn.

Before arriving Florida, Berkland was fired as a contract medical examiner in 1996 in Jackson County, Missouri, in a dispute over his caseload and autopsy reports. His doctor’s license was ultimately revoked there.

The Penasacola’s medical examiner’s office said the organs found in the storage unit appear to have come from private autopsies Berkland performed between 1997 and 2007 at funeral homes in the Florida Panhandle and in Tallahassee.

Jeff Martin, director of the medical examiner’s office, said about 10 families have been notified that their relatives’ remains were in the unit.

Like Silence of the Lambs, only much, much more

Michael Berkland, DO

The contents of a Pensacola Florida storage unit were recently purchased at auction.  When the new owner started to look though the locker, he found numerous human organs in soda cups and Tupperware-style containers.

The locker previously belonged to Michael Berkland, DO, a forensic pathologist who used to work in Pensacola from 1997-2003.  He was fired in 2003 for not completing autopsy reports.

Investigators are not sure if the organs are from official Medical Examiner cases or private autopsies he performed on the side.

No charges have been filed yet; it is not clear whether Dr. Berkland broke any laws by storing the organs in this fashion.

Before working in Pensacola, Dr. Berkland worked in Jackson County, Missouri.  He was fired for allegedly fabricating autopsy results, and his medical license in Missouri was revoked.  Dr. Berkland has denied the allegations that he fabricated autopsy results.

This story reminded me of the scene in Silence of the Lambs where Agent Starling is going through the storage unit and finds a head in a jar.

Dr. Berkland’s other claim to fame is that he did the autopsy on Lori Klausutis, the aide to former congressman Joe Scarborough (R-FL).  She was found dead in Congressman Scarborough’s office in July 2001.

 

Source:  Organs found in storage linked to former Jackson County coroner – KansasCity.com

 

A former Jackson County medical examiner who was fired here and lost his Missouri medical license is now under fire in Florida for allegedly keeping human organs in a storage unit.

Authorities said Tuesday that Michael Berkland, who also had been a medical examiner in Florida, crudely preserved human brains, hearts and lungs in soda cups and plastic food containers found inside the unit in Pensacola.

A man bought the contents of a storage unit at auction last week and made the gruesome discovery after being overpowered by a strange smell while sifting through furniture and boxes.

Investigators found formaldehyde, a chemical used to embalm and preserve bodies, leaking from a 32-ounce drink cup with a cracked lid that was holding a heart, said Jeff Martin, director of the District 1 Medical Examiner’s Office in Pensacola.

“How horrible it is for the families of these deceased to think that someone’s loved one’s organs are basically rotting away in a storage unit somewhere, it’s horrible,” Martin told The Associated Press.

The unit had been rented previously by Berkland, who worked at the Pensacola medical examiner’s office from 1997 until 2003, when he was fired for not completing autopsy reports.

Officials said he was also performing private autopsies in the area. It’s unclear if any of the organs were from autopsies he conducted while working at the medical examiner’s office. The medical examiner’s office is now cross-referencing names in its database from that time period, Martin said.

No charges have been filed against Berkland. His attorney Eric Stevenson declined comment Tuesday. Phone calls and emails to Pensacola Police were not immediately returned.

Before going to Florida, Berkland had been fired as a contract medical examiner in 1996 in Jackson County in a dispute over his caseload and autopsy reports. Investigators found eight undissected brains when they reviewed files and specimens handled by Berkland, indicating he had fabricated autopsy results, authorities said.

Berkland said he did not dissect the brains because he was going to use them in a pathology class he was teaching. They were mistakenly reported dissected, he said, because he usually did that and his prerecorded dictation included a stock phrase that the brain was sectioned.

The new medical examiner, Thomas W. Young, filed a complaint against Berkland with the state Board of Healing Arts and his doctor’s license was ultimately revoked.

The Missouri attorney general’s office found no criminal cases were jeopardized.

At the time, Berkland contended the actions against him in Missouri were politically motivated and unfair because he was unable to present evidence in his defense.

In Florida, officials are trying to locate family members for some of the victims, but many of the organs are not labeled, making it nearly impossible to identify them.

Officials were trying to determine whether Berkland broke any laws regarding biomedical waste and the storing and disposing of human remains.

It was not immediately known why the organs were being stored there. Martin said it’s unlikely they could have been sold anywhere because they were not well-preserved.

Many of the remains were stuck in household food containers and other containers that “aren’t made to hold up to outdoor weather conditions. The chemical inside of those containers is very caustic … a lot of those containers were emptied because they had cracked through so all of those caustic chemicals were leaking out somewhere,” Martin said.

Berkland told employees of the Florida storage facility that he planned to keep household goods and office furniture there, the company said.

“We never had any indication that anything was out of the ordinary, nor did anyone on our management team ever notice anything amiss during daily property checks,” said Diane Piegza, vice president of corporate communications of Uncle Bob’s Self Storage.

New report confirms critical shortage of forensic pathologists in US

A draft report from the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice and the Scientific Working Group for Medicolegal Death Investigation has recently been released which confirms there is a critical shortage of forensic pathologists in the United States.  The report also gives recommendations on how to combat the problem.

Obviously forensic pathologists perform a vital role in society, and an insufficient number of competent practitioners can literally allow people to get away with murder.

Here are some of the findings I found to be most interesting:

  • There are only 37 ACGME-accredited forensic pathology training programs in the US
  • Most medical schools have little or no exposure to forensic pathology in the medical school curriculum
  • A recent survey showed that among the 37 training programs in 55 the United States, there were a total of 78 approved positions, but only 53 were funded and 42 were filled
  • Since 1959, there have been slightly less than 2000 people who have trained in forensic pathology, and a total of about 1400 board certified forensic pathologists have been produced in the 52 years since 1959
  • There are an estimated 500 full-time forensic pathologists in the United States, and projections suggest that 1000 are needed to provide adequate coverage in the United States
  • Only two-thirds of forensic pathology fellowship graduates practice forensic pathology full time, and 21% end up not practicing forensic pathology at all
  • Forensic pathologist salaries for those who are not chiefs of offices usually range between 100K and 200K per year, with few Chiefs making more than 200K per year
  • The national autopsy rate is now miserably low at about 8.5%, with only about 4.3% of disease-caused deaths undergoing autopsy
And a few of their recommendations:
  • The specialty of forensic pathology and death investigation needs to be made more visible in medical school (as does exposure to general pathology) and pathology residency curricula
  • The exposure to autopsy, forensic pathology, and death investigation needs to be improved and made more positive in pathology residency programs, and non-forensic pathology faculty need to be more supportive of forensic pathology as a legitimate medical and academic discipline
  • Financial incentives need to be provided to attract medical students and pathology residents into the field of forensic pathology
  • The salaries of forensic pathologists need to be made competitive with other medical specialties requiring similar years of training
  • Forensic pathology training programs need to be increased in number along with an increase in funded forensic pathology fellowship positions
  • Forensic pathology training programs need to have more formal relationships with medical schools and pathology departments
The full draft report can be read here.

Dr. Stephen Cina named new Cook County medical examiner

Stephen Cina, MD

Meet Stephen Cina, MD

Dr. Stephen Cina has been named the new Chief Medical Examiner for Cook County, Illinois.  His immediate predecessor, Dr. Nancy Jones, is resigning effective July 31, 2012 amidst some problems at the Office.  Interestingly, the search for her replacement began on June 19, and Dr. Cina was named only three weeks later.

According to his CV, Dr. Cina’s medical education is as follows:

  • Medical school-Vanderbilt
  • Anatomic pathology residency-Medical University of South Carolina
  • Clinical fellowship in surgical pathology-Johns Hopkins
  • Forensic pathology fellowship-Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Maryland.

He is currently the deputy chief medical examiner in Broward County Florida (Fort Lauderdale).  He applied to be the chief medical examiner of Broward County last spring, but was not selected.

Chief medical examiner will not be Dr. Cina’s only job

Dr. Cina will make $300,000 a year in his new position.  That does not, however, include what he makes for consulting on the side.

If you want to talk to Dr. Cina on the phone about a case, that will cost you $400 per hour.  If you want him to testify out of town, that will cost you $5,000 per day plus expenses.  Not too shabby at all.

Cook County employees are allowed to do up to 20 hours per week of outside work, but Dr. Cina states that he expects to only do 8 hours per week of outside work while at Cook County.

Will he actually have time to do consulting work?

Some question whether he will able to do much consulting at all when he sees the condition of the Office.

The Cook County ME office performs around 5,200 autopsies per year according to its website and has experienced some significant disarray of late.  The fact that there are only 5 forensic pathologists in the office (not including Dr. Cina) when there should be 15 does not help.

Given the caseload at Cook County, each pathologist will have to perform approximately 866 autopsies to keep up.

As I brought up in a previous post, Dr. Kris Sperry, the chief medical examiner of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, considers 250 forensic autopsies per year to be the maximum a forensic pathologist should perform.  Quality suffers in his opinion if one does more than that.  Dr. Vincent DiMaio and the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) feel the same way.

In fact, NAME will not accredit any program in which a forensic pathologist performs more than 325 autopsies in a year.

Perhaps Dr. Cina should consider hiring Dr. Steven Hayne to help out at Cook County.  Dr. Hayne, who reportedly does not possess anatomic or forensic pathology board certification from the American Board of Pathology, has testified that he personally performs more than 1,500 forensic autopsies per year.  That would help immensely.

This is a very interesting article about Dr. Hayne.

Good luck to Dr. Cina

I in no way begrudge Dr. Cina his success.  Forensic pathology is a small specialty, with only about 400 board certified forensic pathologists in the US, and he is being paid what the market will bear for his expertise.  I simply found this article and the challenges he faces in his new position to be interesting, which is why I am writing about it.

Hopefully Dr. Cina will be able to find a balance between his jobs and bring the office back up to where it needs to be.  I wish him the best of luck.

 

Source:  New morgue boss not giving up his $5,000-a-day side job – Chicago Sun-Times

 

Nearly five thousand bodies a year go through the Cook County medical examiner’s office, an office that — whoever was to blame — found itself in disarray this past year, with bodies piling up in the morgue cooler and staffers snapping photos of grisly refuse to send to the press.

You’d think that cleaning up and then running the ME’s office, which now pays $300,000 a year, would be a full-time job.

But the newly designated medical examiner, Dr. Stephen J. Cina, whose selection was announced Tuesday, also has a long-time lucrative side job as a forensic pathology consultant for high-profile lawsuits, pulling down $5,000 a day, plus expenses.

A job he plans to keep once he takes over for sacked predecessor, Dr. Nancy Jones.

“We allow our employees to have second jobs, as long as they don’t conflict with county work,” Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle said.

Nor is Cina — pronounced “See-nah” — licensed yet to practice medicine in Illinois, so he cannot sign death certificates.

“He does not have a license right now, but he is applying and by the time he gets here, he will have it by then,” said Mary Paleologos, a spokeswoman for Preckwinkle’s office.

The good news is it shouldn’t take him too long to get his license in Illinois.

“Usually a week or two,” said Susan Hofer, of the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. “We try to provide customer service.”

Once his licensing is in place, Cina, 46, will find himself in an office that is, despite his arrival, still seriously understaffed, with only five forensic pathologists available to help him perform autopsies — there are supposed to be 15, though Preckwinkle has promised more hiring.

Cina is now the associate medical director and chief administrative officer of the University of Miami’s Tissue Bank. Before that, he served as deputy chief medical examiner in Broward County, Fla., from 2007 to 2011. Last spring, he applied for the position of Broward County medical examiner when it became open, but he wasn’t selected.

All the while, he worked both his day jobs and kept up his big-bucks consulting business, charging $400 an hour to advise over the phone, plus testifying at more than 200 trials, charging $5,000 a day for out-of-town work, no credit cards or personal checks accepted.

“If you need an autopsy report reviewed or a patterned injury on an assault victim analyzed, consider a consultation with Dr. Stephen J. Cina,” his website, autopsyreview.org, ballyhoos.

His wife, Julie, an MBA, handles the business aspects.

County employees are permitted to do up to 20 hours a week of outside work, though that might not be possible once Cina sees the mess he needs to clean up and the political hoops he must jump through.

“I think he’s going to find that his duties as chief will interfere with his ability to continue his consulting practice,” said outgoing medical examiner Nancy Jones, who herself did legal work before joining Cook County — but stopped once she became medical examiner.

Cina said Tuesday he plans to work “up to eight hours a week” at his side business and promised not to take on work from any clients in Illinois.

“The job is 24/7, which doesn’t leave much time for outside work,” Jones said.

Speaking through Preckwinkle’s office, Cina declined an interview to explain the challenge of balancing consultation work with his new role of medical examiner.

He’ll have to scrupulously keep his business separate from county work. Medical examiners with private businesses have gotten themselves into trouble in other parts of the country in the past.

For instance, Cyril Wecht, a Pennsylvania pathologist, was accused of doing $400,000 worth of private work at public facilities and on public time while Allegheny County coroner in the early 1980s. The case dragged on for years, and he was eventually acquitted of criminal charges but ended up repaying the county $200,000 after a civil lawsuit.

Preckwinkle said she is not concerned that Broward County just passed on the chance to hire Cina last May.

“No, we’re grateful he’s willing to take the challenge,” she said. “He was recommended by his predecessor.”

Dr. Jones?

“No, Dr. [Edmund] Donoghue,” Preckwinkle said, referring to the ME before Jones. “Then we did a pretty thorough search.”

The search consisted of evaluating three of the 300 to 400 medical examiners nationwide who qualify for the position.

“Not like people were banging at the door trying to be chief medical examiner of Cook County,” Paleologos said. “We needed to act swiftly. We were under the gun. He was very interested in the position. He approached us.”

The board of county commissioners votes on his appointment July 24.

 

Defamation suit filed by forensic pathologist against prosecuting attorney cleared for trial

Dr. Joseph Czaja

A couple of months ago, I wrote about the status of the defamation case that Dr. Joseph Czaja, a forensic pathologist, had filed against Mike Shipman, a Wayne County, Indiana prosecutor.  At that time, a hearing had been scheduled to hear arguments on the defendant’s motion to dismiss.  Please see the previous post for details on the case; it is very interesting.

Mr. Shipman’s motion to dismiss has been denied and a trial date has been set for March 4, 2013.  This is the second motion to dismiss Mr. Shipman has filed; both have been denied.

In addition, the attorney from the Indiana Attorney General’s office who was representing Mr. Shipman asked to be removed from the case, and a new attorney replaced him.

If the facts of the case are truly how Dr. Czaja is representing them, I hope he emerges victorious.  In my original post, I stated I believed the bar will be set very high for a successful defamation claim against an officer of the court.  I still believe that to be the case.  It will be interesting to see how this shakes out.

 

From The Palladium-Item:

The defamation lawsuit against Wayne County Prosecutor Mike Shipman will go to trial in 2013.

Madison County Superior Court Judge George G. Pancol recently dismissed a motion filed by Shipman’s attorney to dismiss the lawsuit filed by pathologist Dr. Joseph Czaja and set the case for trial in March 2013.

Shipman had been represented by attorney Cory Voight of the Indiana Attorney General’s office.

Voight filed a motion in March asking that the suit, which was initially filed in April 2010, be dismissed because of a lack of prosecution by the plaintiff. There had been little activity in the case since September 2011.

But Pancol dismissed the motion and set the case for trial March 4, 2013. No reason was given for the trial date set 10 months ahead.

Voight asked the court to be removed from the case and was replaced by attorney Kenneth Joel.

Shipman did not return a phone call seeking comment Wednesday.

Czaja is represented by Muncie attorney Jason Delk. Delk did not return a phone message seeking comment.

Czaja was the pathologist who performed the autopsy on Erin Stanley of Centerville after Stanley was found dead in her parents’ home on Sept. 1, 2007.

Czaja initially said Stanley had been strangled, then later said he could not determine a cause of death with any degree of medical certainty because a tissue procurement team had begun its work on the body before the autopsy was done.

Czaja alleged Shipman defamed him with comments after the dismissal of a murder charge against Stanley’s boyfriend, James McFarland, in February 2009.

Czaja, who worked in the Fort Wayne area, has since moved to Tyler, Texas. He sued Shipman individually and as the Wayne County prosecutor, requesting a jury trial. The lawsuit did not specify damages.

Shipman’s attorney first asked for the case to be dismissed in September 2010, but Pancol denied that request in January 2011.

via Defamation suit against Wayne County prosecutor heads to trial | Palladium-Item | pal-item.com.

Pathologist accepts $100,000 settlement for alleged defamation

Dr. Steven Hayne (pictured) has settled with The Innocence Project for $100,000 in a lawsuit in which Dr. Hayne claims he was defamed.

The Innocence Project is an organization co-founded by Barry Scheck, who is probably most famous for being one of O.J.’s defense attorneys in his double murder trial.  According to its website, The Innocence Project is

…dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted people through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.

Hayne sued the group because it accused him of doing poor work that has led to the incarceration of innocent people and because he was removed from a list of “designated pathologists” in Mississippi.  The Innocence Group does not admit guilt and says it settled because its insurance carrier wanted to settle.

There is an article written in November 2007 that talks more about Dr. Hayne.  It is fascinating and a must read.  Among the more interesting parts:

-He has testified under oath to performing more than 1,500 autopsies per year in addition to other professional pursuits (The National Association of Medical Examiners will not accredit any program in which a pathologist performs more than 325 autopsies per year);

-He once testified that skeletal remains showed signs of strangulation;

-Despite saying he is board certified, he apparently is not, as he was failed for walking out of the ABP board exam in the 80′s because the questions were “absurd”;

-A former Mississippi police chief says Hayne is making millions a year

 

From The Clarion-Ledger:

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Too many bodies, too few forensic pathologists

This is a story out of Georgia that talks about the relative paucity of board certified forensic pathologists in the state and nationwide as well as the importance of having properly trained forensic pathologists.  According to the article, there are only 400 board certified forensic pathologists in the country, which seems a bit low to me.  Perhaps that’s just the number that practice full time.

The story goes on to explain that there are 14 board certified forensic pathologists at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation (GBI) for around 3,000 autopsies per year.  According to Dr. Sperry, chief medical examiner of the GBI, each pathologist does around 250 cases/year, which he considers the maximum.  More than that and he feels the quality of the work suffers.

I spent a month at the Office of the Medical Examiner (OMI) in Albuquerque back in residency, when I thought I wanted to do forensics.  That office serves the entire state of New Mexico as well as some of western Texas; there were no regional offices.  If someone died anywhere in the state and needed to be posted, they were brought to the OMI.  At that time, there were 5 (maybe 6) medical examiners, plus about 4 fellows.  The fellows were limited to no more than 2 posts/day, plus a protected paperwork day per week roughly.  There was usually only one ME on per day, and sometimes we would have 25 posts in a single day.  I would say an average day was 10-15 autopsies.  Sometimes an ME would do 10-15 autopsies in one day by themselves.  Now, they had amazing autopsy technicians, on site X-ray, an army of investigators, etc, but they did a ton of work.  The quality of their work seemed just fine; they had some very good and well-known MEs.  But I suppose while they did an excellent job, perhaps they could have done even better if they had more people and more time.

Forensics is not the best compensated specialty within pathology, and the lifestyle can vary.  You have to deal with attorneys, law enforcement, bureaucrats and dismal-never-increasing budgets.  All of these reasons likely contribute to the dearth of properly trained forensic pathologists.  While I found the subject matter fascinating and the job a very valuable public service, I just simply didn’t want to see that stuff day in and day out.  I applaud those that do.

We definitely don’t have enough board certified forensic pathologists in this country, and when there are not enough to go around, jurisdictions will have to make do with what they can find, and that doesn’t always turn out so well.  Like in Calgary, where a pathologist who had not passed AP or forensics boards got a $300K per annum job because authorities were desperate.

From WALB.com:

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Medical examiner on JFK assassination dies at 85

Dr. Earl Rose, the medical examiner on duty in Dallas, Texas on November 22, 1963, died yesterday at the age of 85 in Iowa City, Iowa.  He had end stage Parkinson’s Disease.

Dr. Rose is perhaps most famous for work he did not do; namely, the autopsy on President Kennedy.  He literally put his body between the Secret Service with Kennedy’s body and the exit door in an attempt to preserve the chain of evidence and the rule of law, but obviously was unsuccessful.

Interestingly, Dr. Rose died on the same day that historian Robert Caro finally published his long awaited fourth volume of the biography of Lyndon Johnson, and the book details Dr. Rose’s attempt to autopsy the president in Dallas.

Dr. Rose did perform the autopsies of Lee Harvey Oswald, J.D. Tippit, the police officer killed by Oswald and Jack Ruby, Oswald’s killer.  In 1968 he moved his family to Iowa City, Iowa, where he joined the faculty of the University of Iowa.

In addition to the story below, there is a very good article from the Press Citizen that was published the day before he died and another short article acknowledging his death.

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Canadian officials deny wrongdoing after toddler’s death wrongly termed a homicide

Dr. Michael Belenky

I previously posted about the non-board certified forensic pathologist in Calgary, Dr. Michael Belenky, that is alleged to have wrongly ruled a toddler’s death a homicide, which led to the decedent’s step brother being placed into foster care for two years.  The family is suing the pathologist for $2 million, but is also suing justice and child welfare officials in Alberta.

This story is an update on the case in which the public officials deny any wrongdoing on their part, and state they were only following orders issued by a court when they took the step brother away.  There is also a little more info on Dr. Belenky, including the fact that he was not board certified in AP and forensic pathology at the time he was hired in Alberta or when he was terminated, almost three years later.  It is not known why he was terminated, but his employment contract did require him to be board certified in AP/FP or else his contract would not be renewed.

From The Calgary Herald:

CALGARY — Provincial officials are denying any wrongdoing in a case involving a toddler whose accidental death was wrongly classified as a homicide.

The child’s family is suing the former Calgary pathologist who performed the autopsy, Dr. Michael Belenky, along with Alberta justice and child welfare officials.

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Forensic pathologist sues prosecuting attorney; hearing scheduled

In April 2010, Dr. Joseph Czaja, a forensic pathologist formerly working in the area of Fort Wayne, Indiana, sued Wayne County prosecutor Mike Shipman for defamation.  Mr. Shipman tried to get the suit dismissed in September 2010, but a judge denied the motion and allowed the suit to proceed.  Now the Indiana Attorney General’s office has filed another motion to dismiss; a hearing is scheduled for May 3, 2012.

The story begins in September 2007, when a 16 year old girl was found dead in her bed.  The coroner contacted Dr. Czaja to perform the autopsy, and also informed him that the organ/tissue procurement team wanted to begin harvesting immediately.  Dr. Czaja very correctly told the coroner that no one was to touch the body until he had a chance to examine it first.  When Dr. Czaja arrived to commence the autopsy, he discovered the organ/tissue team had already started their work and that the decedent’s eyes had already been removed.  During the course of the autopsy, Dr. Czaja noted there was significant damage to the decedent’s neck area and trachea, which led him to assign asphyxiation due to strangulation as the cause of death and homicide as the manner of death.

As a result of his findings, the prosecutor initiated a homicide investigation that led to the arrest of the girl’s boyfriend, James McFarland.  Not long thereafter, Dr. Czaja discovered that the organ/tissue team had attempted to draw blood from the decedent’s neck prior to Dr. Czaja’s arrival, which led him to question his original interpretation of the autopsy findings.  He allegedly informed Mr. Shipman verbally of his concerns a short time after he learned of the blood draw.  Reportedly, Mr. Shipman showed little interest in Dr. Czaja’s concerns.

A year or so later, Dr. Czaja was called to be deposed about the case and at that time expressed surprise that the case was going to trial despite his concerns about the case he voiced to Mr. Shipman.  The defense counsel contacted Dr. Czaja after the deposition to clarify his (Dr. Czaja’s) position.  A hearing was subsequently scheduled on a motion to dismiss murder charges against the boyfriend, and Dr. Czaja was called to testify; he testified that he was no longer medically certain about the cause of death, but that the findings were still consistent with strangulation.

Mr. Shipman questioned Dr. Czaja during the hearing and stated that he (Shipman) was never made aware of Dr. Czaja’s concerns.  The murder charges were ultimately dismissed against the boyfriend.

Following dismissal of the charges, Mr. Shipman allegedly then proceeded to repeatedly impugn Dr. Czaja’s integrity, professionalism, qualifications, competence, honesty and character in interactions with the media, court hearings and in a letter written to another county prosecuting attorney.

Dr. Czaja alleges that Mr. Shipman’s actions led to a loss of income from his inability to perform more autopsies in Indiana as well as not being made partner within his group.  The entire complaint can be read here.

Unless Dr. Czaja has contemporaneous documentation of his conversation with Mr. Shipman about his concerns over the validity of his autopsy findings, I fear Dr. Czaja will not be successful in his case.  I imagine courts would set a very high bar for one of its officers to be found negligent or derelict in their duties, and unless there is a preponderance of evidence the conversation took place, I bet the case will be dismissed.

There is one aspect of this case that I think is amazingly important but was not discussed in any of the articles or complaint I read and that is the actions of the coroner.  By allowing the organ/tissue procurement team to begin harvesting prior to the forensic pathologist’s examination of the body, he allowed the chain of evidence to be irretrievably compromised.  Presumably the coroner is a lay coroner, as he is referred to as “Mr. Fouche” in the complaint.  In my opinion, much more attention needs to be paid to the coroner’s actions in this case.  Mr. Fouche, as of this writing, is still listed as the coroner for Wayne County Indiana.

via Suit dismissal requested; Lack of action by plaintiff cited in defamation case against county prosecutor-PalItem.com