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.
There was a significant conversion from coroners' offices to medical examiners systems between 1960 and 1989, but Hanzlick, who has tracked the numbers, says the trend has since stalled. No states have converted to a medical examiner system since 1996, and only six counties have converted since 2000. One county even reverted to a sheriff-coroner system, in which the sheriff also serves as the coroner. This situation, Hanzlick said, raises questions of independence because the agencies have different goals.
"The medical examiner or coroner should remain free of law enforcement influence and control," he said.
Experts also say that investigators who are not trained in forensic pathology can spell big problems for death investigation, creating opportunities for infectious diseases to go undetected, innocent people to go to jail, and homicides to slip through the cracks by being ruled accidental.
Dr. Michael Baden, chief forensic pathologist for the New York State Police and an expert witness in many high-profile murder cases, says he's seen mistakes and misinterpretations happen time and time again. The result?
"Lots of people wind up in jail who shouldn't be in jail, people end up on the streets who shouldn't be on the streets, and people get executed," said Baden, who is the former chief medical examiner of New York City. "Mistakes get made and people pay the consequences."
The Innocence Project, a nonprofit that works to exonerate inmates believed to be wrongfully convicted, called earlier this year for Mississippi to revoke the medical license of Steven Hayne, a medical examiner whose autopsies were scrutinized after two Mississippi prisoners he testified against were exonerated 15 years later. The group said that although Haynes claimed to be "board-certified" in forensic pathology, he was not actually a board-certified forensic pathologist.
Hayne has defended his work as a medical examiner and says he is a victim of a witch hunt by the Innocence Project and other death penalty opponents.
The state announced earlier this month that it was terminating his contract, although it cited hiring a full-time medical examiner for a vacant position, not the complaints, as its impetus.
This, according to Baden, points to the number one problem in death investigation: a lack of training. Many of the people performing autopsies, he said, aren't properly trained or qualified. For example, most people who do autopsies in murder cases are certified in hospital pathology, dealing with natural diseases like cancer, but then end up conducting autopsies in violent, suspicious and unexplained deaths.
"It's a significant problem," Baden said, adding that although there are excellent coroners in the country, "The work in medical examiners offices in which they have forensic pathologists tends to be very superior to coroners offices in general."
He said some kind of federal mechanism or support is needed to train more forensic pathologists – there are only about 400 in the country at present – or to appoint a federal official charged with improving death investigation.
"Forensic pathologists are really the frontline of terrorism acts and bioterrorism acts," said Baden. "If someone dies of a new bacterium or virus or anthrax or smallpox, the medical examiner will be the first to do the investigation. We have to train people to recognize deaths that may involve chemicals or biological agents."
Accreditation is another issue. Out of over 100 medical examiners offices in the U.S., only 54 are accredited and, hence, inspected by the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME), the accrediting organization founded in 1966 to improve the quality of death investigation.
"We would like to see more offices across the country become accredited under our organization," said NAME President Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen.
Accrediting medical examiners offices is important, Jentzen said, "because it documents to their jurisdiction and to the local citizens that they are performing at the highest level and that they do have policies and procedures."
Offices are evaluated for the procedures it has in place, structural facilities, security, and personnel, among other accreditation requirements, which many offices across the country can not currently meet, he said.
But Baden cautioned that accreditation isn't a solution.
"They need some kind of overarching ability to reach into all the states and counties to improve death investigation and to regionalize it," said Baden. "Each jurisdiction has its own peculiar history and needs."
NAME is currently working with Seattle officials to review the city's investigating procedures.
A pathologist there was conducting an autopsy in May when he discovered that the number of MS Contin and Percocet pills that were in containers belonging to the deceased were markedly lower than had been counted two days earlier during inventory, said James Apa, a spokesman for the health department. Thomas Chapin allegedly came forward and confessed after the investigation was launched.
"After working there for approximately six months, Chapin began to take prescription medication from death investigation scenes, the autopsy office area and the evidence lockers," Detective S. Smith said in one court document. "He used the medication for his own personal use and quickly became addicted."
ABC News was unable to reach Chapin for comment.
In response to the alleged theft, the office has instituted new protocol in which medications are re-inventoried before being returned to police to ensure that the amount leaving is the same that came in.
"This pointed to an area where we needed to improve our security and we did immediately," said Apa. He stressed that the missing drugs have not effected any determinations of causes of death or criminal investigations because in all cases but one, Chapin allegedly left some drugs in the vials that pathologists were still able to examine.
A spokesman for the King County Prosecutor's Office said Chapin has been charged in drug court to allow him to enter a one-year drug treatment program since "he has no criminal history and appears to have an addiction problem." If he doesn't complete the program, he could face six months in jail. Chapin resigned from his job last week and is due in court Aug. 18 for arraignment.
Megan Chuchmach is a 2008 Carnegie Fellow at ABC News.