The Honolulu medical examiner provides critical information for murder investigations, but its current workload is well beyond what’s recommended.
With every death, whether it’s an accident or possibly a homicide, the body will end up at the medical examiner’s office for an autopsy.
In its budget report to the city council, the medical examiner is asking for more money to hire another forensic pathologist, which does autopsies.
The report says “the number of cases exceeds national standards.”
Experts tell us that this is a problem that’s happening all over the country.
Ken Lawson, a faculty member at the University of Hawaii William S. Richardson School of Law and part of the Hawaii Innocence Project, says those autopsy reports carry a heavy weight in the investigation.
“When you don’t have enough resources and you’re not putting enough resources into these things, something’s got to give,” he said.
The National Association of Medical Examiners sets the standard for the number of autopsies for pathologists. The recommended amount for each pathologist is 250 a year. Any more than 325 is a violation which could result in the office losing its accreditation.
Currently, the Honolulu office is not accredited. Many other counties also are not.
The Honolulu medical examiner’s office has four pathologists. The administrative officer tells us the office handles 1,400 to 1,500 autopsies a year. That amounts to more than 350 autopsies for each pathologist, well beyond the recommended amount.
Lawson tells us that type of workload can lead to shortcuts and wrongful convictions.
“That’s what we’ve seen on a national scale when it comes to coroners being overworked and doing too many autopsies in a one-year period,” Lawson said. “They would just rely on what the officer says. It’s called cognitive bias.”
Lawson tells us that cognitive bias happens more with infant deaths, when there are no witnesses, so the whole investigation hinges on the autopsy report.
“We see a lot of wrongful convictions based on this, and when the coroner comes in and says the death of this child was based on this and the coroner hasn’t had enough time to examine the child’s body because he or she’s overworked, again that’s where that bias comes in,” Lawson said.
We asked for an on-camera interview with the medical examiner, Dr. Christopher Happy, but have not heard back.