Autopsies In America

A recent ProPublica report exposed the state of Death Investigation in America, and the truth revealed by that report was a shock to most citizens.

In our country, we tend to assume that when an individual dies under suspicious circumstances, an autopsy will be conducted and a professional will render an irrefutable cause of death. However, as Americans, we are learning more and more often that this base assumption is completely untrue.

We are learning that in many places in this country, the chief Medical Examiner is an elected position instead of one that is achieved through personal qualification, and many medical examiner’s offices are under the authority – direct or indirect – of the police and district attorneys they are responsible for influencing. We are learning that when a Medical Examiner is proven to be incompetent at his job, he can simply hop from state to state and continue conducting autopsies and rendering opinions; in many cases, sending innocent people to prison and letting the guilty walk free. We are also learning that, despite the advances in medical science, no set of standards for autopsy procedure exist as a base requirement across the United States. In many cases, state governments that insist on pursuing cases with questionable autopsies are not being held responsible for the loss or destruction of evidence (samples from our loved ones), and worse yet, are covering up the bad performance of these professionals to avoid jeopardizing ongoing criminal cases.

In State of Alaska vs. Clayton Allison, the autopsy performed on 15-month-old Jocelynn Allison was affected by many of these issues. Dr. Janice Ophoven, nationally renowned pediatric forensic pathologist, called the autopsy performed on Jocelynn, “vastly insufficient, incompetently performed, incompletely documented, and incorrectly interpreted, such that the autopsy report [was] severely misleading about the circumstances of Jocelynn’s pathology and death.” Despite testimony from Dr. Ophoven at trial, Clayton Allison was wrongfully convicted, and sentenced to 40 years in prison with 10 suspended and 15 years of mandatory probation. He awaits appeal.

The medical examiner who performed the autopsy, Dr. Robert Whitmore, left employment in Alaska after controversy in the media over mishandling another autopsy in Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula and, at last report, is actively conducting over 200 autopsies per year in the state of California.

Effect on our communities

Poorly conducted autopsies risk injustice in every case, regardless of circumstances. Some examples of the affect these autopsies can have include:

  • Criminal charges being pursued in accidental death cases, costing states and individuals massive resources;
  • Innocent people being put in prison for life, or even death, sentences;
  • Critical evidence in homicide cases being mishandled, not collected, or destroyed;
  • Guilty individuals walking free forever;
  • Families being told that their loved ones died, or were murdered, in horrific ways that are untrue, causing years of psychological trauma and in some cases additional crimes of passion; and
  • Untold millions of U.S. dollars being spent to investigate, charge, defend, imprison and rehabilitate the innocent.

What can be done about this injustice?

Free Clayton Allison supporters believe that the only way to correct injustice of this scale within our country is for citizens to take a stand at every level, and demand change. If this is an area you would like to fight within for correction, please learn more at Speak Out about contacting your national and state legislators and executive branches of government. Take time to research more on this subject, and get connected with individuals and organizations that are advocating for change. Some of the changes we recommend include:

  1. Abolition of state policies that allow for the election of key state medical professionals;
  2. Abolition of government structures that place medical examiners under the direct influence of police or district attorney’s offices;
  3. Censure and enforced accountability for state governments that cover-up poor performance of state medical examiners through omission of, or fraudulent, evaluations;
  4. Requirement to have independent reviews done on autopsies which have been called into question after exposure of poor performance by a medical examiner;
  5. A national board responsible for licensing medical examiners and publishing proper baseline standards for autopsies in the United States; and
  6. Medical examiners being subject to national loss of license if performance does not meet minimum standards.

We do not pretend to know how to solve all of these issues, but until people begin to rally around these critical issues in our communities, real change will never occur. Real change will require the involvement of individual citizens and proven professionals from the field. Every voice counts.


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