EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

June 8, 2014

Backlogged autopsy reports prolong families' grief

By Rupa Shenoy
New England Center for Investigative Reporting

---- — In March 2013, Kimberly Parker, 45, was walking her beloved pair of golden retrievers when something went wrong. Her husband Richard told police he found her face down in the snow outside their East Bridgewater house and called 911. She was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

The hospital and a preliminary autopsy found no obvious signs of how she died.

But Parker’s family immediately suspected Parker’s husband, who is awaiting trial on charges of assault to murder Parker in December 2011, 15 months before her death. The Plymouth County District Attorney’s Office confirmed Parker’s death is under investigation.

Today, Parker’s family still doesn’t know how she died. More than a year later, the state has yet to produce toxicology and autopsy reports that national standards say should have been delivered within 90 days.

Richard Parker’s attorney, Gerald Noonan, denies his client had anything to do with his wife’s death. He said the delayed reports are allowing Kimberly Parker’s sister, Stephanie Deeley, to slander Parker.

“There is absolutely no medical evidence at all to support her allegations,” Noonan said.

And that’s true without a final autopsy report, a fact that frustrates Deeley.

“It’s a terrible burden to live with, to spend every day wondering if someone took her, and to extend that burden is just unconscionable,” Deeley said.

Kimberly Parker’s family is one of many waiting for answers. As of early May, autopsy reports on 1,121 deaths had been delayed at least three months, the time period after which they’re considered backlogged. The Medical Examiner’s Office said it did not have more detailed information about how long those cases had been waiting for attention.

MURDERS MISSED?

Many lives have been put on hold because of the state medical examiner’s inability to process death investigations in a timely way. While state officials cite underfunding as a key reason, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found questionable management decisions and a pattern of lax oversight contributing to the delays.

The state’s chief medical examiner now says problems are so severe that possible homicides are being missed. Prosecutors say court cases are sometimes delayed, and some experts are increasingly concerned backlogs could result in unequal justice, as long-delayed cases are back-burnered.

“We’ve had delays in charging certain cases because we didn’t have their results in timely fashion,” former Middlesex district attorney Gerry Leone said. “Time is very rarely the friend of the prosecutor, whether you’re investigating a case or you’re prosecuting it.”

From 2011 to 2013, the number of death certificates waiting completion skyrocketed from 58 to 947. Those delays were driven in large part by report wait times that more than quadrupled after the state Medical Examiner’s Office went forward with a plan to send all its toxicology samples to the State Crime Laboratory, which had just shut two facilities following scandals.

Such management decisions are rarely scrutinized because the Medical Examiner’s sole oversight comes from an unpaid advisory commission that was unable to muster a quorum from 2011 through 2013. Five of the 13 appointed positions on the commission are vacant.

Another reason for delays is that the Medical Examiner’s office has only 10 medical examiners for a population that warrants 17, according to the National Association of Medical Examiners. And despite promises by state officials in 2008 to better fund the office after a series of scandals, its budget today is even smaller than during that time period.

Stalled court cases and uncollected insurance policies that require a death certificate are two results, but for thousands of families, the delays also prolong their grief.

ABSENCE OF INFORMATION

Bio-safety officer Kimberly Boleza met security consultant Richard Parker in 2002. Boleza had a graduate degree and a promising career; Parker was a divorced father of two and Boston Fire Department lieutenant who had searched the World Trade Center rubble after 9-11. The couple married in 2005.

In September 2011, around the time of the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack, Richard Parker, then a Department of Homeland Security consultant, attempted suicide by ingesting the neurotoxin ricin, said Kimberly Parker’s brother, Ed Boleza. Kimberly found Richard and called 911, then Boleza.

“The house was lit up like the Ohio State Fair midway — FBI, local police, couple ambulances, mobile crime labs,” Boleza recalled. “They had moon suits to enter the house.”

Richard Parker recovered after a week in the hospital. A few months later, on Dec. 18, 2011, police responded to another incident at the Parker home. Kimberly Parker told police officers her husband had held her against a wall and threatened to kill her and her dogs. A grand jury indicted Richard Parker on charges of assault to murder.

But Noonan, Richard Parker’s attorney, said Kimberly Parker didn’t cooperate when the Plymouth County District Attorney’s Office charged her husband.

By mid-December 2012, Richard Parker was living with Kimberly again.

On March 10, 2013, Richard Parker called his wife’s family to inform them Kimberly was being taken by ambulance to Brockton Hospital. When they arrived, he told them she had died—collapsing in the snow as she was walking the dogs.

The Office of the Medical Examiner took jurisdiction, as it does in deaths involving infants, suspicious circumstances or otherwise healthy people. The long wait for answers began.

In the meantime, Noonan points to Kimberly Parker’s history of seizures caused by a traumatic brain injury. He said in January 2013 she had one episode while walking the dogs. Noonan said he’s tried to tell the Medical Examiner Office about the condition but “they have refused to speak to me.”

THE OFFICE

In 2007, a series of scandals rocked the Medical Examiner Office. There were missing corpses, unclaimed bodies piled in overcrowded facilities, and pools of blood on autopsy room floors. A review by the Executive Office of Public Safety found the Medical Examiner needed an $11.5 million annual budget and 17 full-time medical examiners. Chief Medical Examiner Henry Nields said he’s asked for that funding every year since then.

Those levels are “where we feel we ought to be functioning as required by law,” he said during an April meeting of the office’s oversight board, the Commission on Medicolegal Investigations.

In fiscal 2014 the Office budget was $7.5 million. Gov. Deval Patrick has requested a $2 million increase in fiscal 2015, some $2 million less than what Nields said is needed.

Lack of funding has certainly made it difficult for the office. A $5 million Sandwich satellite office built in 2009 to serve the Cape area sat mostly unused until it opened in July 2012. There is limited use of a rented Holyoke facility to examine deaths in Western Massachusetts, because it needs $60,000 in upgrades to equipment, plumbing, electricity and ventilation.

“They fund other things before they fund the dead,” said commission member Patrick Leahy.

The Office compensates for understaffing by doing fewer autopsies and more “reviews,” or external inspections, Nields told the commission. Based on the Commonwealth’s population, the Office should have done more than 4,000 autopsies in 2013, he said. Instead it performed 2,363 autopsies and 2,844 views.

SLOW TURNAROUND

Curtis Wood, who oversees the Medical Examiner’s Office for the Office of Public Safety, said when autopsies are done, they are completed within 24 hours. But his overtaxed staff can take months to gather documentation from police and other agencies to complete autopsy reports and death certificates.

Meanwhile, families like that of Lincoln resident Rick Golay wait in confusion.

The 62-year-old died Oct. 14, 2013, while biking, and there was no immediate word on the cause of death. His family thought it could be a genetic condition, and worried his fraternal twin Ron was also at risk. Golay’s wife, Lauren Sloat, contacted the Medical Examiner Office’s family liaison.

“He was the first one to tell me it could take six months, and I was appalled,” Sloat said.

Thirteen days after NECIR asked about Golay’s case, the Office called Sloat to say her husband died of a vascular disease and his death certificate would be mailed in a few weeks. Golay’s brother quickly made an appointment with his physician, and Sloat was finally able to claim Golay’s two insurance policies and pension.

Commission Vice Chairman Frederick Schoen, a professor of pathology at Harvard, said he believes only close to full staffing — 17 medical examiners — will eliminate systemic backlogs.

The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (www.necir.org) is a nonprofit news outlet based at Boston University and WGBH TV and Radio in Boston. It is supported in part by media outlets that include The Eagle-Tribune. NECIR interns Rebecca Lee and Madelyn Powell assisted with the research for this story.