Deadline Now: Lucas County Coroner James Patrick
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Deadline Now: Lucas County Coroner James Patrick

Friday, April 22, 2011

From "Quincy" to today's popular "CSI" and "NCIS" television series, forensic medicine has fascinated us. How close to reality are those dramas? What does a coroner really do? Dr. James Patrick, Coroner for Lucas County, explains it all this week.

Here are host Jack Lessenberry's Final Thoughts for this week's edition of Deadline Now:

Some years ago, I had the honor of speaking to an annual meeting of Michigan’s medical examiners. That’s essentially the same job as that of a coroner in Ohio, incidentally, although in Michigan they are appointed, not elected. Most of them told me they had good relationships with the media, but they hated television.
Specifically, they hated shows like Quincy, ME, and the endless parade of police and detective dramas on prime-time. They said that was because these shows had conditioned the public to believe that every crime could be solved in ninety minutes with time out for commercials, and that even the most difficult cases could be solved by a smart coroner who could work some miracle like reading grains of pollen, or figure out the cause of death from a single hair.

Well, I understood the pathologists’ frustration, but melodrama aside, I have a great deal of admiration for what they do. Most of us couldn’t imagine working under conditions which often involves horrifically damaged corpses, sometimes in an advanced state of decomposition.

Nor would many of us have the ability to learn the scientific techniques needed to uncover hidden poisons, artfully inflicted wounds, or to determine whether a gunshot would at close quarters was suicide or homicide.  This isn’t easy work, but it is crucial for society.

One of the things I have admired about Dr. Patrick has been his willingness to change his rulings in rare cases when new evidence has surfaced. None of us is infallible and real professionals in any profession know they should always keep an open mind.

Back when I was covering the Kevorkian assisted suicide cases for the New York Times, I often talked with medical examiners involved in the cases, especially the colorful Oakland County medical examiner, a Montenegrin named Ljubisa Dragovic.

He was not a supporter of assisted suicide, and he and Kevorkian frequently attacked each other in the media. But on one thing they agreed. Forensic pathology was the queen of the medical sciences, they said; a coroner or medical examiner has to be  both physician and scientist, with a strong dose of detective thrown in.

I find what they do both fascinating -- and utterly essential to not only law enforcement and insurance agencies, but to society as well.  I just hope I never need Dr. Patrick’s individual attention.