Friday, May 16, 2014

Untrained medical examiners fail families, imperil justice

Anyone who has enrolled in school or applied for a passport knows the value of a birth certificate.

This is a special series of stories tied to the piece of paper at the other end of life -- your death certificate.

No, you won’t need the certificate, but trust me, it will be very important to the people you leave behind.

That’s because death certificates do more than just certify your death. They also explain what took your life.

The stated cause of death affects the ability of loved ones to collect on insurance, hold others liable for your death if warranted, and ultimately come to some peace of mind about what killed you.

And that’s just about you. Compiled and studied as vital statistics, death certificates reveal public health threats ranging from disease to environmental hazards.

But none of this works unless the facts are right. And as you will learn from this five-part series, titled "Fatally Flawed," that’s a big problem in North Carolina.

Our team of reporters documented many troubles. But the bottom line is this: Our state stands out nationally for trying to investigate unexplained deaths on the cheap.

Each year about 75,000 North Carolinians die. A medical examiner is called in to investigate about 10,000 of those deaths because the circumstances are suspicious, violent, accidental or unattended.

That’s where the trouble begins. The state requires no training for its medical examiners. And it pays them a paltry $100 per case. As a result, many deaths get little attention.

The effects on surviving loved ones can be devastating. We found case after case of grieving relatives forced to launch their own inquiries into how a family member died. Forget all you’ve seen on CSI. These circumstances were DIY (do it yourself).

The disgrace to our state doesn’t stop there. We found an eastern N.C. county conducting an earnest campaign to fight heart disease. Its inspiration: state statistics suggesting that residents were up to 10 times more at risk of dying of a heart ailment. Experts say it’s more likely that the county’s medical examiners simply chose heart disease as a catch-all explanation in processing death certificates.

While all of this may surprise you, there are people in Raleigh who have been in the know for a long time.

Our Legislature was first warned about problems with the medical examiner system 13 years ago, through another Observer series called “Grave Secrets.” Those stories triggered a 2001 commission that recommended improvements. A handful of suggestions were adopted, but many others were ignored.

Now, a new team of Observer journalists has burrowed into the system. They examined more than 130,000 deaths investigated by medical examiners since 2001. Their work is the most comprehensive analysis of state death rulings ever conducted.

And while matters have only grown worse, it doesn’t have to be this way. We’ll show you how another state helps families get to the truth about causes of death, bringing them the closure they desperately need.

I hope you’ll read the entire series and support something better for North Carolina. Both you and your descendants deserve it.

An autopsy suite in Raleigh at the Medical Examiner's labs.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Just out: Our new Observer edition for the iPad

If you have an iPad (or hope to get one under the tree) we invite you to try our newly released Observer app for iPad.

This tablet edition is tailored specifically to take advantage of the iPad’s features. And it’s a leap ahead of our former iPad edition. Among the features I think you’ll like:

-- Easier navigation and a friendlier format.

-- More photos and videos.

-- The ability to leave a comment by a story.

-- More topics added, including a weather page and obituaries.

Also, with one click of an icon (in the uppermost right-hand corner of the screen), you can move from the iPad edition to the E-edition. That’s the very popular replica of the printed Charlotte Observer in a digital format.

What did he say? Yes, the E-edition is a digital replica of the actual printed newspaper.
Readers who like printed newspapers love this version.

If you subscribe to the Observer, you already have unlimited access to both of these formats, as well as our smartphone apps (iPhone and Android). If you don’t subscribe, but would like to take a test drive, try a one-month trial subscription for digital access to all of these products for only 99 cents.

We've also made it easy for you to download our apps for iPad, iPhone, Android and Windows 8. Users of all other web-enabled phones will find similar improvements at our mobile website. Simply aim your browser at

We know you spend more time now reading screens of all kinds. Our goal is to always be where you need us to be when you turn to The Charlotte Observer.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

When death checks in, who's paying attention?

Last June, North Carolina’s top public health official talked tough about authorities’ failure to protect three guests killed by carbon monoxide poisoning at a Boone hotel.

“These deaths were a tragedy that should have never happened,” said Aldona Wos, chief of the Department of Health and Human Services. ”I have instructed my staff to work with local officials to identify measures to ensure tragedies like this never happen again.”

That was six months ago. Incredibly, Wos has said nothing about the deaths since and has repeatedly refused Observer requests for interviews.

And in a strange twist, her office in August issued a brief statement saying, in part: “Based on our review of the facts, we do not believe that any state employee erred in performing their responsibilities.”

I urge you to read our in-depth report today on the deaths of these three guests. Then decide for yourself. Is the state’s standard for meeting its responsibilities high enough for you and your family?

Shirley Mae Jenkins, 72, and her husband, Daryl Jenkins, 73, died mysteriously in Room 225 at the Best Western Plus Blue Ridge Plaza. There was no evidence of foul play.

But the medical examiner assigned to investigate did not visit the death scene. The state didn’t require it.

When the medical examiner submitted samples to a state lab for toxicology tests, he left blank a portion of the form that asks about circumstances surrounding the deaths.

Details like, this person died in a hotel room. Oh, and another person died in the same room at the same time.

Again, the state didn’t require him to mention those details.

Those samples then sat in a lab in Raleigh for 40 days for a test for carbon monoxide poisoning that takes 15 minutes.

And once the samples did test positive for carbon monoxide, no one took the necessary steps to save 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams.

Urgency was not part of the state’s protocol.

Jeffrey checked into Room 225 with his mother, Jeannie Williams, seven days after the state identified carbon monoxide as the Jenkinses’ killer. Jeffrey died and Jeannie was severely injured.

Why didn’t officials act more responsibly? And why should you believe they will next time?

You should also know this. The state Medical Examiner’s Office, which reports to Wos, obstructed The Observer for months in its efforts to get public records that were important for this story.

Those record requests went unfilled despite certified letters sent to both Wos and the state’s chief medical examiner, Deborah Radisch. Only through an attorney and a threat of a lawsuit were we able to secure the documents.

This is hardly behavior befitting people who claim to be public servants, looking after the public’s safety.

In today’s stories, an expert says it is a mistake for a medical examiner not to go to the scene of a mysterious death. Another expert says that when two people die in the same enclosed space, you should immediately suspect an environmental cause. Still another says he never spends a night in a hotel without taking along a carbon monoxide detector.

Sadly, all of this advice comes from authorities outside of our state. Inside, where this tragedy took three precious lives, we’ve heard little about how they are improving a system that is supposed to prevent public health hazards.

Our staff continues to investigate the important work of medical examiners in North Carolina. We invite your help. If you have a question or concern about a specific death investigation, please let us hear from you.

As a help, we’ve posted on a death investigation database that is public record. It is searchable by name and will indicate whether the medical examiner viewed the body in a specific case.

No one can bring back those who were lost, but we dare not ignore the lessons left behind for the living.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Traveling? Take The Observer with you

As you travel this Thanksgiving, it will be easier than ever to take your Charlotte Observer with you.

All subscribers have access to our popular E-edition. This is a digital replica of the printed newspaper for computer and iPad (download the iPad app at iTunes).

This edition has all the features of the printed paper and then some. For example, the content is searchable and the stories are easily saved and emailed. You can also pull up seven days of back issues.

Here is another convenience especially nice for travel. You can download the issues you want for reading later, when you won't have Internet access -- in the car, on a plane or at a remote vacation destination.

Thousands of subscribers now read the printed Observer this way. If you don't subscribe, we have a one-month trial subscription for digital access only for 99 cents.

Also, if you are traveling, it's easy to go online and put a temporary hold on delivery of your paper copies. You can arrange the dates to both stop and restart your paper.

Read The Observer by phone? You'll want to get our app updates for Android and iPhone.

These updates introduce a whole new look that includes more photo galleries, article commenting and video that comes embedded conveniently within stories.

To download our app for iPhone, go to the Apple App Store. For Android, go to Google Play. Users of all other web-enabled phones will find similar improvements at our mobile website. Simply aim your phone's browser at

Safe travels, everyone.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Check out our updated phone apps

If you are among the thousands who now read The Charlotte Observer by phone, you'll want to get our app updates for Android and iPhone.

These updates introduce a whole new look that includes more photo galleries, article commenting and video that comes embedded conveniently within stories.

Navigation is also simpler. Sub-sections logically lead you to topics you most care about. And, of course, you can swipe your way from story to story.

The most popular content also remains: local news, sports, weather, entertainment, movie times, news alerts and the ability to share favorite stories with your friends.

To download our app for iPhone, go to the Apple App Store. For Android, go to Google Play. Users of all other web-enabled phones will find similar improvements at our mobile website. Simply aim your phone's browser at

The phone is an easy way to keep up with the latest developments, wherever you may be. It's no wonder why mobile (phones and tablets) is now our fastest growing audience segment, representing a third of all visits to

We will soon launch a redesign of our tablet edition for iPad, with more video, photos and graphics. More on that in the next month or so.

As always, we welcome your feedback. Our goal is to be where you need us to be, in the format that works best for you.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Observer headlines for your website

If you manage a web site or blog, you know all about widgets.

A widget is a feature that you can download for use on your own web pages. There are thousands of them.

Now The Charlotte Observer has added one more that could be of special interest to your audience: Breaking news headlines from

It’s a window, essentially, to the top local news of the day. The headlines change constantly to reflect the latest developments. And if your web site or blog is focused on the Charlotte region, it could be especially appealing to your visitors.

The headlines are also links. A user who wants to read more about a particular story can click on it. Naturally, we hope people will do that at times. But we’ve also made it easy for those users to return to your site with the click of their “back” button.

We’re launching this feature with a choice of headline topics: Local News, Sports, Business, Opinion, Entertainment, Young Achievers and SciTech. Pick as many widgets as you would like to try.

Also, know that this is an idea still in development. We welcome your feedback to help us improve on it, including topics you’d like to see added.

Friday, September 6, 2013

In Saturday edition: Panthers special section

Practice and preseason are over. Now it's for real. And your Saturday Charlotte Observer makes it more so with a 16-page special section kicking off the regular season of the Carolina Panthers.

What's so special about it?

-- A cover story by Joseph Person on quarterback Cam Newton and middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, the cornerstones of the franchise and one of the best young tandems in the NFL.

-- The complete roster and depth chart, plus an analysis of the Panthers, position-by-position.

-- Game-by-game analysis of the Panthers schedule, by the Observer's Jonathan Jones.

Then, coming Sunday:

-- It's game day, Panthers versus the Seattle Seahawks. You'll find a four-page wrap around your sports section with all the details.

-- Also, in an exclusive interview, Cam Newton talks with Jonathan Jones about how he spent the off-season analyzing himself as a leader. And, how Newton learned from former Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme.

Can't wait? Check out this video of Observer columnsts Scott Fowler and Tom Sorensen giving their predictions.

Watch for more video, beginning Sunday, as features game highlights for the Panthers and other NFL teams.