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Allegheny County's autopsy office called lax

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By Margaret Harding
Saturday, Aug. 3, 2013, 12:01 a.m.

A group of forensic investigators warned Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald and others that the medical examiner's office increasingly fails to do autopsies in cases of suspected suicide, car crashes and workplace deaths, according to a letter one investigator said was mailed Friday.

The letter claims there is an “increasing number of cases that meet the criteria for a forensic autopsy ... that go without receiving a forensic autopsy.”

Forensic investigator Alison Bixby said during the past few years it became more common for pathologists to issue death certificates for suspected suicides without performing autopsies.

“We just issue the death certificate and don't even bring the body in (from the hospital),” Bixby said. “It's a disservice to Allegheny County.”

Dr. Karl Williams, Allegheny County medical examiner, was out of the country and could not be reached for comment.

Williams was not listed among those copied on the letter.

County spokeswoman Amie Downs said representatives from the county manager's office and law department met with members of the medical examiner's office about an earlier letter, though she could not say with whom they met or when.

She said Fitzgerald had not received the second letter, which Bixby said 13 of 16 investigators supported.

“It is our understanding that the concerns were addressed,” Downs said. “Once we receive (the second letter), we'll see if there's something else we need to do to move forward.”

State law directs coroners to investigate facts and circumstances concerning deaths, including those resulting from violence or trauma, to determine whether an autopsy should be conducted.

Kevin Stroyan, president of the Pennsylvania State Coroners Association, said it is up to the discretion of an individual medical examiner or coroner whether an autopsy is necessary.

“It's not something you can just say definitively that this is a certain case that would require an autopsy,” said Stroyan, who also is the Pike County Coroner.

The latest letter, which the Tribune-Review received Friday, charged there is “preferential treatment, discrimination and negligence” in the office, creating a “hostile work environment.” It did not list examples.

The first letter, sent in April, said there was overtime abuse, a lack of training opportunities and inefficient security at the Strip District office.

The concerns from that letter went unheard, Bixby said.

“Things have not improved,” Bixby said. “If anything, I think it's gotten worse.”

The second letter claims:

• Management “virtually ceased” communications with forensic investigators, creating a hostile work environment;

• A refrigeration unit used to store bodies prior to autopsy has been inoperable for more than a month;

• Requests for safety equipment for scene investigations went unanswered.

The copy the Trib reviewed bore no signatures. It was signed, “Respectfully, The Forensic Investigators of the Allegheny County Medical Examiner's Office.”

Jake Lifson, an attorney in the county law department who handles human resources, was copied on the letter, as was former Allegheny County Coroner Cyril Wecht and members of the news media. Lifson could not be reached. Wecht said he had not seen the letter.

The letter concludes by saying the investigators hope to call “much-needed attention” to the institution.

Forensic investigators remove and transport human remains, notify family members of a death, retrieve medical records and personal effects of the deceased and help investigate deaths.

The county's website says forensic investigators must have a bachelor's degree in justice, medical technology or biology, or at least four years experience in a related field.

Trib Total Media staff writer Michael Hasch contributed. Margaret Harding is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8519 or

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