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EDITORIAL: Speed up review of doubtful medical examiner cases

Monday, December 24, 2018
Chicago Sun-Times
by Editorial Board

EDITORIAL: Speed up review of doubtful medical examiner cases

Dr. John E. Cavanaugh

Dr. John E. Cavanaugh. | Sun-Times files

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The Cook County medical examiner’s office did the right thing when it decided to review all 218 cases handled by one of its pathologists who missed spotting a homicide.

But the review is taking too long. If the pathologist, Dr. John E. Cavanaugh, missed evidence of other crimes, the police need to know before the trail goes cold. In other cases, whether a “suicide” was not really a suicide or a “natural” death might have been caused by something else, family members need to know — now.


In Sunday’s Sun-Times, Tim Novak and Robert Herguth reported that more than a year after learning about the missed murder, the medical examiner’s office is little more than one-third of the way through its review of Cavanaugh’s cases and that the agency doesn’t expect to finish its work until the end of 2019.

What would be nice here is a sense of urgency.

In the case that triggered the review, Cavanaugh didn’t notice that a man who was found dead in a burning apartment had died as a result of being stabbed. Clearly, that was evidence police needed to properly investigate the case.

After reviewing 82 cases, the medical examiner’s office has found the wrong manner of death also was listed in four additional cases. The “natural” death of a 2-year-old should have been listed a undetermined because bruises were found, raising questions about child abuse. A “suicide” should have been listed as undetermined. An “undetermined” death should have been recorded as natural. Similarly, an “accidental” death should have been listed as natural.


The medical examiner’s office is a critical link in uncovering and solving crimes and letting family members know whether a loved one died by suicide or natural causes.

But in recent years, the office has continued to stumble on the job. In 2012, we learned that coolers overflowed with bodies, and corpses in blue body bags were being stacked in hallways, because pathologists couldn’t keep up. In the past year, the Sun-Times has reported that some of the agency’s investigators, who help collect evidence, have faced disciplinary action for failing to visit even a single crime scene each month.

In a 2015 case, federal agents came to strongly believe that a Chicago police sergeant, Donald Markham, had been murdered, though the medical examiner’s office ruled he had shot himself in the head. The medical examiner hasn’t changed its ruling, so the case remains closed as a suicide.

A Cook County spokeswoman says the review of the 218 questionable cases is taking a good deal of time because the pathologists doing the work have new cases to handle as well.

But the longer the review takes, the less value it has with respect to solving actual crimes.


Unprecedented review after medical examiner fires doctor who missed a murder, May 27, 2018

Doctor fired by Cook County medical examiner now under the microscope in Indiana, July 16, 2018

Cook County prosecutors want a 2nd opinion on fired pathologist’s murder finding, Aug. 7, 2018

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