The Cook County medical examiner’s office, which routinely hasn’t abided by a requirement that it send an investigator to the scene of every suspicious death, no longer will be required to do so.
The Cook County Board agreed Wednesday to change the requirement in a county ordinance that says a medical examiner’s “representative shall go to the location of the body” and begin an “investigation with an examination of the scene.”
Despite the wording of the ordinance, Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle disputed that the on-site examinations of death scenes were required.
But, at her urging, county commissioners voted unanimously to give the agency “discretion” about whether to make a “scene examination” based on “generally accepted guidelines for conducting medico-legal death investigations.”
The vote followed a Chicago Sun-Times investigation that found that, over a three-year span, there were 130 days when the agency’s investigators didn’t go out on even one death. That included cases later found to be homicides, suicides and accidents. The medical examiner’s office went to fewer than one in five death scenes, the Sun-Times reported.
Preckwinkle said the medical examiner’s office, which reports to her, would need a yearly budget of $35 million to send an investigator out on every suspicious death in Chicago and the Cook County suburbs.
Its current budget is $14 million, and the county is facing an anticipated budget shortfall next year of $82 million.
“This ordinance language change simply clarifies one section to align with industry standards and current practices,” Preckwinkle said. “It would be impossible and fiscally irresponsible to have a scene investigation for all deaths. It’s also unnecessary.”
Preckwinkle and Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, her chief medical examiner, responded to the Sun-Times’ findings by saying they don’t know of any case in which not going to the scene of a death compromised an investigation. And they said the agency’s investigators are going out to more death scenes — up from about five a month for the entire staff in 2012 to 130 a month now.
The agency’s pathologists have about two dozen investigators to collect information to help them determine the cause and manner of death.
The changes Wednesday also mandate that police have to immediately report a death to the medical examiner.
The office has said it didn’t send out an investigator in one high-profile case — the 2015 shooting death of off-duty Chicago police Sgt. Donald Markham, who was found dead in his bed of a gunshot wound to the head — because it wasn’t notified by the Chicago police until Markham’s body was being driven to the morgue in a police vehicle.
In that case, the Sun-Times has reported, the FBI has disputed the medical examiner’s suicide finding after enlisting its own forensic pathologist to review Markham’s death. He was found dead in his bed of a gunshot wound to the head.
The FBI met with Arunkumar and others in the office in December to present its case that Markham did not kill himself after arguing with his wife, also a Chicago cop, as police and the medical examiner found.
City Hall’s inspector general is investigating the police handling of that case.
“We’ve been beat up about the Markham case,” Preckwinkle said Wednesday. “And I would point out that, in that case, the police did not promptly call the medical examiner’s office, they arranged for the disposal of evidence, they took the body to the medical examiner’s office in a police car. I mean, the idea that we’re criticizing the medical examiner’s office for the outcome of the pathology report given the behavior of the Chicago police department is quite astonishing to me.”
The medical examiner’s office ended up agreeing with the police, and Arunkumar refused to change the findings after meeting with the FBI.
Dr. Ponni Arunkumar, Cook County’s chief medical examiner. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times
Under Arunkumar, investigators are supposed to have prioritized getting to the scenes of possible homicides, suicides and child deaths. But they don’t come close to getting out to all of those scenes, relying on the police to tell them what happened.
Beside the issue of when investigators should go out, the medical examiner’s office also has been in the spotlight after a Sun-Times report last month that it’s conducting an unprecedented review of more than 200 cases handled by Dr. John Cavanaugh, one of its former pathologists, who for a time was second in command, for errors that included missing a murder.
• After shooting fiancée, ex-cop was hired, promoted by medical examiner, June 17, 2018
• Unprecedented review after medical examiner fires doctor who missed a murder, May 25, 2018