Cape Gazette

Senate bill aims to replace Medical Examiner's Office with new division

Operations function under Department of Safety and Homeland Security
By Melissa Steele | Jun 16, 2014
Source: DHSS The Controlled Substances Lab remains locked while investigators determine who tampered with drug evidence sent to the lab for evaluation.

A bill that would move the Medical Examiner's Office into the Department of Safety and Homeland Security was voted out of committee June 11.

The bill was written by Sen. Robert Marshall, D-Wilmington West after a May proposal by secretaries Rita Landgraf of the Department of Health and Social Services and Lewis Schiliro of the Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

The cabinet secretaries told members of the Senate Public Safety Committee that the Medical Examiner's Office should be moved following revelations a Medical Examiner's Officer employee had tampered with drug evidence sent to the office for evaluation. Two employees have been indicted following the state's investigation of ongoing tampering; both are suspended without pay. Chief Medical Examiner Richard Callery remains suspended with pay from his $198,000 a year job.

Marshall's bill would move the Medical Examiner's Office from the Department of Health and Social Services to the Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

“We learned a lot, and frankly, I believe we were all stunned by the lax security procedures and oversight that led to this scandal,” Marshall said.

Landgraf said an audit of the Controlled Substances Lab within the Medical Examiner's Office determined doors and windows were unsecured, and there was no surveillance of the office.

Under Senate Bill 241, a new Division of Forensic Science would replace the Medical Examiner's Office; it would operate under the Department of Safety and Homeland Security.

A new eight-member Commission on Forensic Science would provide oversight and support for the new division. Representatives from the criminal justice system, academics and the General Assembly would serve on the commission, which would handle staffing, budget needs, quality assurance, evidence-handling protocols and accreditation. The commission also would ensure the office remains an independent, even though the move would put the office under the same department as the Delaware State Police.

Schiliro said the changes, especially the creation of the commission to provide oversight, will protect the office's independence and bolster public confidence.

“I find the argument that people working in the office will lose their integrity, if the office is moved, difficult,” he said, in answer to concerns raised by some during the Senate Public Safety Committee.

Other states have forensic labs that report directly to state police, and the integrity of those labs is rarely questioned, he said.

Delaware's office would report to a division director under the new bill. The qualification for the head of Medical Examiner's Office also would change. A division director with forensic science experience – not necessarily a certified pathologist – would be appointed to run the office. That person would be subject to dismissal; currently, a “for cause” statutue results in a lengthy termination process.

“These are big, sweeping changes,” Marshall said. “But I think they are necessary to rebuild public confidence in the office and to provide Delawareans with the type of top-flight crime lab services they deserve.”

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