A recent case involving a city morgue worker whom prosecutors say secretly stole drugs from corpses is the latest gruesome example of a morgue worker accused of taking advantage of the dead. But experts point to a farther-reaching systemic problem of a lack of training, regulation, and accreditation at coroner and medical examiners offices across the country.
Thomas Chapin, 29, was responsible for picking up human bodies and delivering them to the Seattle medical examiner's office for autopsies. But, for almost six years, Seattle police and public health department officials say Chapin stole prescription and illegal drugs ranging from morphine and oxycodone to black tar heroin and crack cocaine from the corpses.
Stealing from the dead is a recurrent theme in death investigations that pops up periodically, according to Dr. Randy Hanzlick, a leading forensic pathology professor and a chief medical examiner in Georgia.
"There have been cases around the country," Hanzlick told ABC News. Accusations include stealing prescription drugs, cash, personal valuables and, in one case, a handgun from the dead.
In June, a coroner's office investigator in West Virginia was accused of stealing a credit card from a body and using it to charge more than $400 at a strip club. Police said the man confessed and now faces a felony charge of fraudulent use of a credit card.
These incidents highlight weaknesses in the system that Hanzlick says must be examined. Chapin was a certified death investigator, but experts say that people who are untrained and inexperienced often qualify to hold the position of coroner in many states and counties throughout the U.S. and that the risks and consequences are great.
In Georgia, for example, anyone who is a registered voter, at least 25 years-old, has no felony conviction and has a high school diploma or equivalent is eligible to be a coroner, bearing the responsibility of leading death investigations, signing death certificates, and holding inquests.
"The coroner may be a local garage mechanic who uses a local hospital pathologist who has not had any training in forensic pathology," said Hanzlick. "The training requirements have to be stiffened up."
There are over 2,300 separate death investigation systems across the country, made up of both medical examiners offices and coroners. Some systems serve an entire state while others are divided by county.
The coroner system is a holdover from old English law in which coroners are usually elected officials who, in all but four states, don't have to be physicians, according to Hanzlick. Twenty-eight states have coroners, but only eight require coroners to be trained, he said, adding that in states that do have training, it's typically just four or five days.
Medical examiners offices were created in the 1900's and are typically run by appointed physicians and, in most cases, forensic pathologists. About 31 percent of counties in the U.S. are currently served by a medical examiner system.
"It's a difference between having a fully trained medical person running the system versus an elected official," Hanzlick said.