- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 19, 2011

The D.C. medical examiner’s office is “at a loss” to explain why a professional association declined to renew the office’s accreditation, while questions remain about the potential impact on law enforcement initiatives and perceptions in the courtroom, city officials said.

The National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) said “the warning was there” before its decision to remove the D.C. office from its list because Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Marie Pierre-Louis is not board-certified in pathology and has been out of training too long to go back and obtain the certification.

The association informed the D.C. office of its final decision March 16, noting a board-certified chief is a “non-negotiable criterion for full accreditation,” according to a recent budget report from the council’s Committee on Public Safety and the Judiciary.

“There’s a value to having the accreditation,” Committee Chairman Phil Mendelson said Thursday, after the Washington Examiner first reported on the issue. “That value is lost.”

Dr. Pierre-Louis confirmed NAME’s decision and its underlying reasons during an oversight hearing before Mr. Mendelson’s committee on May 2, explaining why news broke this month and not earlier, according to a council staffer.

The D.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner received provisional accreditation for the first time in October 2008. It was renewed once before NAME’s recent denial.

Dr. David Fowler, chairman of NAME’s inspections and accreditations, said the District's office came a long way under Dr. Pierre-Louis but never addressed its final concerns about her board certification.

The association has developed its checklist over time, he said, and when not all criteria are met, “things tend to go wrong.”

The association recognized the talent of Dr. Pierre-Louis but will not overlook its criteria and analyze the qualities of each medical examiner, Dr. Fowler said.

“That gets into a very subjective area,” he said.

Meanwhile, local officials were left to wonder what impact, if any, the change will have on the merits of the medical examiner's office.

Kristopher Baumann, president of the Fraternal Order of the Police unit that represents Metropolitan Police Department officers, said the decision will affect the District’s ability to prove criminal cases and defend itself in civil cases.

He said it also “casts a shadow” over efforts to certify the District’s drunken-driving test methods and build a modern crime lab.

“They’re an unseen but large part of the criminal justice scene in the District,” Mr. Baumann said.

Beverly Fields, chief of staff for Dr. Pierre-Louis, said the accreditation process is a good way to ensure sound policies and procedures but not a reflection on the office’s work.

“There really isn’t any drawback,” she said, noting many major cities do not have NAME accreditation. “There’s no impact.”

Mr. Mendelson, at-large Democrat, said defense attorneys may use the lack of accreditation in court as leverage, but “that only goes so far,” he said.

“Do you win because you’re board-certified? Probably not. Do we lose a case because we’re not? Probably not,” he added. “But would the prosecutor rather say we’re accredited? Yes.”

Thomas P. Mauriello, a lecturer on criminology at the University of Maryland, College Park, said a defense attorney may attack the credentials of a chief medical examiner even if he or she didn’t work on the case, “as long as it confuses the jury enough.”

“Losing any accreditation allows the defense to question anything that comes out of the office,” he said. “It doesn’t mean the office isn’t doing good work. It is about a professional standard that has not been met.”

Dr. Fowler said there are many major cities that do not have an accredited medical examiner’s office, with New York City being the “strangest” case. However, he said most “serious areas” seek accreditation.

Inspectors rate deficiencies as Phase I or more-serious Phase II problems. While Dr. Pierre-Louis‘ lack of certification was a Phase II deficiency, Ms. Fields said inspectors told city officials it was more like a Phase I issue considering her leadership skills.

Mr. Mendelson also recalled those comments from inspectors, noting Dr. Pierre-Louis led efforts to reduce a backlog of autopsies at the office.

“I was quite surprised to see that it was withdrawn - that it was not renewed - and I believe that their reasons are inconsistent with their past statements,” Mr. Mendelson said.

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