Maybe it’s October or the fast-approaching Halloween holiday. Or maybe forensic science touches the science geek in me. But I’ve always been interested in how death is documented, both in data and by people sources.
After I posted information yesterday about how reporters can document a CPS investigation, John Tedesco, (my terrific reporting colleague at the San Antonio Express-News), emailed me about another unsung doc reporters can obtain from urban medical examiner’s offices.
There’s one more resource that might be helpful, although I haven’t specifically done this in a child abuse case. In addition to the autopsy report, in Bexar County, Travis County, and probably other large counties with medical examiners, you can also request a copy of the investigator’s report. It offers a chronology of what the M.E.’s office did that’s usually packed with details you can’t find in the autopsy report.
With this document John was confirm the Air Force was investigating a nurse suspected of over-medicating an elderly patient.
Medical examiners’ offices are located in large urban areas. Some handle autopsies from other smaller surrounding counties.
I always shake my head at how there are still (yes, Dallas, Bexar, Travis, Galveston counties, I’m talking about you) medical examiner offices that require a paper or mailed request to get an autopsy. Shameful, really.
Nevertheless, here are some of the frequently used ME links for reporters:
- San Antonio - Bexar County. $25 for an uncertified copy of an autopsy. Outrageous price.
- Dallas - Dallas County. Requires paper request to be MAILED to them. And they charge $5 for an uncertified copy of an autopsy. 214.920.5921, for questions.
- Houston - Harris County. You can check the status of the case here. And they charge 10 cents a page for a copy.
- Fort Worth - Tarrant County
- Austin - Travis County. Paper request.
- Galveston - Galveston County Requests can be faxed. Sigh. $25 for an autopsy report (outrageous). They are mailed to you.
In smaller Texas counties, the justice of the peace (JP) is the person called to declare someone is dead.
I love talking to JPs. Finding them is easy if you have the Texas State Directory bookmarked on your computer.
While I’m no Luddite, I like the paper version of the TSD (about $25).
My 2009 TSD has Post-it note tabs on the counties I frequently search for and if you have the book version, it’s easier to tote in the car.
JPs have often turned out to be some of the best sources for me. Some will give you a description of the location where the deceased is found, what the weather was that day, give you excellent detail about the scene, (was the deceased found inside or outside a house, office, car, etc), how the body was found and was positioned and what was next to the deceased. They are often the first eyes after a police agency has responded.
This is not salacious info. A lot of times, what JPs have observed provides great information to readers about the deceased, about how the investigative process works and when investigators knew what.
Any information I get from a JP I always vet through other witnesses at the scene. By doing that I get a sense of whether there was confusion or organization at the scene.
As John said, the medical examiner’s investigation report is very useful.
In 2005, I used one from the Galveston County ME’s office to find out where the deceased were located at the Texas City BP plant following the explosion that killed 15 people. That helped us get a picture of what had happened. And it helped us later determine whether people were working too close to the source of the explosion.
Cemeteries and funeral homes are also a good source, although not a public one, when writing about the deceased.
I try when possible to visit where the person I’m writing about is buried. For larger cemeteries, ask for a plot map. When I wrote about a very high-profile child abuse death, I drove to Brenham, where the girl was buried. I found out that on the eve of the murder trial of the two suspects, (the girl’s mother and the mother’s boyfriend), the child did not have a headstone. I was shocked. And so were a lot of readers.
When writing about children’s deaths, I always ask the funeral home who handled the service if they have a copy of the program printed for the service. Many times, you’ll find some touching details in them you will not find in police reports. Many funeral homes provide an online program, through Legacy.com and other services. But it’s worth asking for a copy of a paper program.
Got a question about public records in Texas? Always glad to help. Email firstname.lastname@example.org