By Ashli Sims and

OKLAHOMA CITY -- Governor Brad Henry released an independent review Tuesday of the State Medical Examiner's Office, saying the report's recommendations will assist the agency as it attempts to regain national accreditation and get back on track.

In February, the governor ordered Oklahoma Commissioner of Health Terry Cline to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the agency after a series of controversies culminated with the dismissal of the chief medical examiner after less than a year on the job.

Among other things, Cline has recommended additional resources and improved facilities for the ME's office along with structural changes to strengthen the agency's governing board and empower a full time administrator to run the agency's day-to-day business while the chief medical officer focuses on the office's medical and clinical work.

The state ME's office is still without a chief, a job the reviewer admits might be tough to fill.

"I believe this review will serve as a roadmap for regaining national accreditation and enhancing public trust in the Medical Examiner's Office," said Gov. Henry. "As expected, Commissioner Cline was very thorough and deliberative in his review and has produced an excellent report. I want to thank Commissioner Cline, ME board members and agency staff who assisted with the review process.

"As I have said before, and as Commissioner Cline's report confirms, the governing board and frontline staff are doing a very difficult and important job under challenging conditions and I have no doubt they will improve their agency and regain national accreditation with appropriate state support."

The key recommendations in the Cline report include:

  • Statutory changes increasing the board's authority;
  • Adoption of an organizational model with a chief medical examiner who reports to an administrative agency head;
  • Increased funding for critical positions and equipment;
  • Appropriate and ongoing training;
  • Development and implementation of appropriate policies and procedures; and
  • A new facility.

To compile his report, Cline reviewed past agency audits and reports, toured agency facilities and interviewed board members, agency staff and outside stakeholders.

Cline, who has led health agencies at both the state and federal level, commended the governing board and staff members at the ME's Office, saying they are already taking steps to improve their agency.

"The board members and staff all want what is best for the people of Oklahoma and have already started implementing improvements at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. With the appropriate management structure and adequate resources and facilities, the agency can and will succeed," said Cline.

Gov. Henry said he has forwarded the report to legislative leaders for review and will work with them to implement the changes necessary to address its recommendations.

"Legislative leaders are committed to getting the ME's Office back on track, and I am certain we will reach a consensus on the changes that accomplish that goal," said Gov. Henry.

The problems of Oklahoma's Medical Examiner's office isn't just a black eye on the state. It's exacerbating the pain of loss for families across the state.

"It just puts families through a lot of turmoil. They have a lot of unanswered questions, they can't handle financial responsibilities they have, they can't settle a person's estate," said Daniel Schaudt, who is a funeral director.

Families like Amy Bell's. It took her almost six months to get her brother, Bo's, death certificate.

"You go through a process. You get the autopsy results, you get the lab results, you file them. There's no reason it should take four months to do all that. It's just absurd," said Bell, who is a Tulsa resident.

The new review out of the Governor's office reveals the agency has a backlog of more than 1,100 cases, including several hundred where the work is done, but the reports haven't been written. 

To get the agency up to speed, the review calls for at least three more pathologists plus clerical staff to enter the reports. 

Even those who are doing the work now, might not be qualified. The review says staffers lack training and certification. 

An accusation that worries some criminal attorney's whose clients rely on the ME's work.

"If there are questions regarding the competency of staff, bodies being piled up, that's how evidence is lost, that's how mistakes are made and that's how innocent people are convicted," said Bob Ravitz, Public Defender.

It also calls for $1.2 million for more staff and equipment to get the ME's office back on the right track.

"We feel that his review is right on target. Many changes need to be made. And many changes have been made in the past few months. And we're moving in a good direction," said Cherokee Ballard, ME's Office Spokesperson.

State Rep. Randy Terrill, a Moore Republican who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee on public safety, issued the following statement (Tuesday) in reaction to the review of the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner by state Health Commissioner Terry Cline:

"I appreciate Governor Henry weighing in on this issue and thank Commissioner Cline for expediting his work and getting the report to the Legislature in a timely fashion that allows us to take necessary action during session.

"The report's fiscal recommendations give us the green light to proceed immediately with legislation making about $450,000 available to the Office of the Medical Examiner, including about $233,000 to hire two pathologists and make much-needed one-time equipment purchases. Those funds, which may be advanced next week, will allow the agency to reduce the autopsy backlog.

"The report's findings are consistent with legislative proposals advanced in the past year and validate many of the things we have been working toward. The only area of difference lies in the report's recommended command structure for the agency, about which we are open and look forward to discussing further.

"The report notes several sites are available for the M.E.'s Office, but leaves that decision to the Legislature. After working on this issue for the past year, a consensus seems to have developed that the office should be moved to the University of Central Oklahoma campus in Edmond. That will help provide the fundamental transformation needed. The UCO location will create a unique, one-of-a-kind synergy that can't be found anywhere else in the nation thanks to the campus' Forensic Science Institute, the nearby Oklahoma State Bureau of Investigation's forensic lab, and UCO's nationally recognized funeral science program."