Delaware overhauls medical examiner’s office

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DOVER, Del. (AP) - Gov. Jack Markell has signed fast-track legislation abolishing Delaware’s office of the chief medical examiner and replacing it with a new division of forensic science.

Markell signed the bill Tuesday shortly after the state House suspended rules and approved the measure by a 35-4 vote. The measure received overwhelming approval in the state Senate last week.

“This legislation will help us create a structure for forensic science that can support the criminal justice community in a way that is expert, timely, professionally independent, and accountable,” Markell said in a prepared statement.

The legislation, pushed by the Markell administration, was prompted by an ongoing scandal involving possible evidence tampering and theft at the state drug-testing lab, which is part of the medical examiner’s office. Two employees of the office have been arrested, and chief medical examiner Richard Callery is suspended with pay amid an investigation of possible misuse of state resources.

Critics of the bill expressed concern about potential law enforcement bias in moving forensic sciences oversight from the Department of Health and Social Services to the Department of Safety and Homeland Security, which oversees state police and other law-enforcement agencies.

Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Wilmington, who voted against the legislation, said last week that it amounted to a “knee-jerk reaction” from the administration and lawmakers to problems in the controlled-substance lab.

But Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Lewis Schiliro, who defended the legislation Tuesday, has said law enforcement officials have the experience and expertise to ensure that evidence is properly handled.

“It really is about science serving justice,” said Schiliro, suggesting that many of the problems at the lab stemmed from long absences by Callery.

“The chief medical examiner simply wasn’t around … and I think that created a huge management gap,” he said. “We simply cannot allow a lack of oversight to continue.”

The legislation establishes a 10-member commission to provide guidance and oversight to the new forensic science division.

Panel members would include the homeland security and health and social services secretaries, the attorney general and state public defender, lawmakers, law enforcement representatives, and experts in forensic science.

“I think this bill responds to concerns that the division’s independence might be threatened by creating an oversight board to set up procedures and ensures that it can operate without undue influence,” Sen. Bethany Hall-Long, D-Middletown, said in the statement issued by Markell’s office. “I think the overwhelming support this measure received in the House and Senate will go a long way to re-establishing public confidence.”

A report issued by the attorney general’s office last week outlined “systemic failings” at the drug-testing lab that included lack of management, lack of oversight, lack of security and lack of effective policies and procedures. According to the report, more than 200 drug charges have been dismissed because of failures at the drug lab, and 82 defendants have been notified of discrepancies in the drug evidence in their cases.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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