Necn Investigates: Backlog at Massachusetts Medical Examiner’s Office Causing Heartache for Families

There is no peace for hundreds of Massachusetts families waiting to know how their loved ones died.

Jaimee Mendez Better

Beatrice Mendez smiles watching the scratchy images of her decades-old wedding video. Her then 5-year-old niece Jaimee proud as a princess in her white dress and flower crown.

"We just want to be able to take that little girl, that baby, that person and give her some peace," Mendez began.

But there is no peace for anyone in the Mendez family. Last November, 25-year-old Jaimee went missing. After a painstaking search, the young mother's dismembered body washed ashore in January at King's Beach in her home town of Swampscott, Massachusetts.

Now, four months later, Jamiee's family is still waiting for the Medical Examiner to release her body.

"We cannot have a funeral," Mendez said. "We don't have her and we have no idea how long the Medical Examiner's Office plans to hold her for."

Jaimee's case is one example of the crushing backlog at the Massachusetts Medical Examiner's Office. According to state data, as of last week there are more than 1,300 autopsy reports and over 300 death certificate reports sitting in the office incomplete- some dating back seven years.

"It's agonizing not knowing," Mike Tyler said.

Tyler found his 59-year-old wife Cheryl Ann slumped over their coffee table last summer. He had thought the vivacious nurse and mother of an autistic son was in good health and has been tortured not knowing how she died. The Salem, Massachusetts, father has been waiting almost nine months for the Medical Examiner to declare a cause of death.

"It would stop the questions in my head," Tyler explained. "What should I have done? What could I have done? Could I have done anything?"

These delays are not the first black eye for the Medical Examiner's office. In 2007, a series of scandals first surfaced, including missing corpses, bodies piled in storage facilities, and remains labeled improperly, leading to loved ones cremating or burying the wrong bodies. Currently, the office only has provisional accreditation from the National Association of Medical Examiners.

These accusations leave Beatrice Mendez with several fears.

"That they'll lose a part of her. That somebody will not be careful enough. That somebody will look at her and not see the person behind what they are looking at. what they are doing. That they will not realize that she was a mother. That she was a very, caring, loving person," Mendez said with tears in her eyes.

"I apologize. And I'm sorry that was the situation. All I can say is we're making improvements. We're trying hard," newly-appointed Secretary of Public Safety, Daniel Bennett, said.

In the last 13 months, the Medical Examiner's Office has reduced the number of outstanding autopsies by 44 percent and the number of pending death certificates has been reduced by 81 percent.

Part of the credit goes to the new way the office is processing bodies. They are doing fewer full autopsies and opting instead for less thorough external examines, like in the case of a car crash victim. But in a mandated accountability report to the legislature earlier this year, Chief Medical Examiner Henry Nields said the new way poses risks, does not meet national standards, and might cause examiners to miss actual causes of death, including in homicide cases.

"It doesn't concern me when I have expert pathologists in those circumstances," Bennett explained.

National standards call for 90 percent of all autopsy reports to be finished within 90 days of the initial exam, but Massachusetts is failing miserably. According to state data, only 45 percent of reports are completed in that time frame. Bennett points to a national shortage of medical examiners.

"There's only 30 produced a year nationwide so it's a very competitive market," said Bennett.

A 2008 state review found that the office should have 17 full-time medical examiners to properly carry the caseload; but still, seven years later, Massachusetts only has the equivalent of about 10 full-time examiners.

In his report to lawmakers, the Medical Examiner admits part of the reason they can't employ more examiners is the national shortage, but the other reason could be because the office has such a bad reputation.

"It tells me that within the office itself it's a one day at a time procedure," Bennett said. "Every day we have to get better."

Beatrice Mendez hopes that day- for her family- comes soon.

"We are not rich. We are not politicians. We are not celebrities. She wasn't killed by a celebrity," Mendez said. "There's no Aaron Hernandez in this case that is going to make them push forward harder." 

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