Differences Linger Over ME Changes

Wichita County Commissioners voted Tuesday to shut down the Medical Examiner's office and replace it with the Justice of the Peace system. But, a critic of the earlier system isn't satisfied.

David Fisher, an independent document consultant from Austin, has been going after the ME's office in Wichita County for years. He has played a role in making changes to others across the state. One of his main issues was the practice of shipping bodies out to Tarrant County for autopsy.

The Texas Code of Criminal Procedure states autopsies "shall be immediately performed by the medical examiner or a duly authorized deputy." In Justice of the Peace systems, JP's can send bodies out of county. But, Fisher said the fix is just as illegal as the problem.

"The Commissioners Court," said Fisher, "does not have the statutory or legal authority to re-impose that duty on JP's. Once you form a medical examiner's office, it's forever." Fisher pointed to the fact the statute does not specifically give commissioners the power to dismantle an ME's office once established.

But, Wichita County District Attorney Maureen Shelton said there is no legal issue with shutting down the office. And, she said it comes down to just one word in the law. Because the statute reads "any county may establish and provide for the maintenance of the office of medical examiner," Shelton said it's a discretionary decision, meaning commissioners can change it.Shelton would not comment on wether there are any legal matters facing the county because of the ME's office. She said the decision was made based on what makes the most sense for the county.

Fisher has other standing issues with the way Wichita County handles autopsies and death inquests. The change, he said, is "a game of musical chairs," simply changing titles and not bringing the system into legal compliance.

Fisher said the county could have elected to appoint an interim ME who would have been able to contract out for autopsies until a permanent fix was put in place. Fisher also said he will continue his fight against the county.

Tim Barnosky, Newschannel 6.