The job of the county’s medical examiner often is unnoticed until it’s needed. And there are misconceptions about what the medical examiner does.
DeKalb’s chief medical examiner is not a coroner. There’s a difference.
In Georgia, the coroner is an elected position. Since its inception during the Middle Ages, the coroner would “literally show up with a scroll that pronounced that you were deceased,” said Pat Bailey, director of the county’s Medical Examiner’s Office. “The requirements aren’t that vast.”
DeKalb, Fulton, Gwinnett and Cobb counties use a medical examiners’ system in which medical doctors perform certain state-mandated forensic death investigations.
Under the Georgia Death Investigation Act, examiners are required to investigate deaths involving sudden collapses, motor vehicles, homicides, suicides, accidents, drug or alcohol overdoses, drownings, or any other non-natural deaths.
When the medical examiner’s office receives notification of deaths from law enforcement officers and medical facilities, they must determine whether the death warrants an investigation.
“There are natural deaths that occur,” Bailey said. “If we have a documented history of that natural death–if there are no other circumstances that may have contributed to the death–we attribute it to the natural death and it does not become a medical examiner’s death.”
For example if the deceased has a history of cancer, congestive heart failure or diabetes, the medical examiners office does not investigate those cases.
“We’re not here simply to satisfy somebody’s scientific curiosity,” Bailey said. “We’re here to ascertain and provide loved ones with an actual cause of death.”
Bailey said when most people think of autopsies, they think of full dissections of deceased bodies.
“Actual autopsies may be limited to an external examination,” Bailey said. “It could be something as simple as an external examination with an acquisition of blood for toxicology [to determine] whether or not alcohol may have played a part.”
Sometimes the autopsy could be a limited, localized dissection, Bailey said. For example, if the case is a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, the dissection would be restricted to that region of the body.
“We don’t feel it necessary to do a full autopsy on every body that comes in here,” Bailey said. “We’re not looking to intrude. We only do it as necessary to complete our investigation and case.
“If you were involved in a traffic accident it is obvious to the doctor [and investigator] that multiple blunt impact injuries caused your death,” Bailey said. “We don’t take it any further than that.”
Gerald Gowitt has been DeKalb’s chief medical examiner since 2000. He has also worked as a medical examiner in Fulton County and for the state of Georgia.
“He’s got a wealth of experience and a wealth of knowledge,” Bailey said.
To keep personnel costs down for the county, Gowitt’s services are provided under a $660,000 contract which he uses to pay seven people and funds any additional staff or testing needed.
Bailey has asked the county’s Board of Commissioners to add $140,000 to Gowitt’s contract to “properly fund him.” That request is still being considered by the board.
“It costs him to provide those additional personnel and that doesn’t cost us anything,” Bailey said.
The medical examiner’s office has 16 county employees, including investigators, laboratory and clerical staff. The office also has medical doctors who have forensic pathology training. The investigators conduct interviews and scene assessments, gather and interpret evidence on a scene and interact with law enforcement officials.
The office investigates approximately 1,700 cases a year and Gowitt said he testifies in approximately 25 court cases each year.
In court, Gowitt said the he may be asked to present findings and opinions about the cause of death, the possibility of activities after fatal injuries, the order in which events may have occurred and the potential for bleeding after certain injuries.
“We’re acting as a witness,” Gowitt said. “Theoretically, it [is] on behalf of the state. I like to look at it as on behalf of the deceased.”
The buildings housing the medical examiner’s offices and county morgue are located on Kensington Road. There, families of the deceased can meet with medical examiner personnel in a comfortable space akin to a living room. Unlike what happens in television shows, they are never taken to a room where a drawer containing a body is opened for their identification.
The morgue “doesn’t look a whole lot different than a surgical suite that you might see at Northside Hospital or St. Joseph’s Hospital,” Gowitt said.
“We lobbied the county very hard in the 1990s to not have a facility that looked like something out of a monster movie,” Gowitt said. “We figure the people that are coming here are coming here at a very bad time in their life. They shouldn’t have to come to a rundown, dumpy place.”