Clues to Mysterious Deaths: Doctors Who Help

Leigh Page

November 06, 2019

Was there foul play? Examining the body, Robinson found knife wounds. Detectives found a knife in the stove, wrapped in a towel, but she does not know what happened next.

In another case of Robinson's, a man was found dead in his garage. Robinson's autopsy revealed a wound pattern on his head that matched a tire iron found on scene. It was identified as the murder weapon.

At the time of the killing, the man had had an appointment with someone who wanted to buy his car, she says. But she later heard that the man might have been killed by a friend of the family who had a robbery motive.

In another of Robinson's cases, a woman and two men were living together in a house where they were producing methamphetamines.

A third man involved with the trio disappeared, and a year later, one of the men living in the house confessed to killing him. It seems that all three men had had sexual relations with the woman, and the two men in the house decided to kill their rival.

The man's body had been shoved into a plastic tote box, which the killers then buried in the backyard, encasing it in concrete. The men rented a backhoe to bury the body, and the rental receipt, which they kept, was evidence of the crime.

Police dug up the body, and Robinson did the autopsy. Even though it was a year after the death, she found deep tissue bruising and a fractured cheekbone. But again, Robinson wasn't told the outcome of the case.

Sometimes, Robinson says, the autopsy simply can't determine whether the person was murdered or died of natural causes. "This happens maybe two to three times a year," she says.

A Forensic Pathology Shortage 

There are very few forensic pathologists. As of 2012, there were only about 500 of them across the country, and that number doesn't appear to have changed much since then. Now the profession is facing a growing shortage created by the rise in opioid deaths. These deaths have measurably increased the number of required autopsies.

"We are incredibly understaffed," says Milad Webb, MD, assistant ME in the Office of the Wayne County Medical Examiner in Detroit.

Webb says all of Wayne County has one chief ME, one deputy ME, three assistant MEs, and one forensic pathology fellow. According to the National Association of Medical Examiners, each ME should be processing 250-325 cases a year, but Webb says he is on pace to process 700 cases this year.

Relatively low pay is one reason for the shortage. Forensic pathologists' average salary ranges from $156,983 in New York State to $111,068 in North Carolina. Webb says government entities that employ most MEs have a hard time paying them more owing to fixed budgets.

Hospital-based pathologists, who don't have extra training in forensics, can earn twice as much as forensic pathologists, according to Andrew. But he prefers his work as an ME.


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