SBI investigates a top official at N.C. medical examiner’s office

goff@charlotteobserver.com aalexander@charlotteobserver.com frkelly@charlotteobserver.comNovember 6, 2013 

The State Bureau of Investigation is probing allegations that a top official with the N.C. medical examiner’s office mishandled evidence important to a 2011 homicide investigation.

The review has focused on allegations against Dr. Clay Nichols, the state’s Deputy Chief Medical Examiner, according to state Justice Department spokesperson Noelle Talley.

Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall said he expects to make a decision about whether to file criminal charges soon.

The Observer has learned that the SBI investigation is focused on Nichols’ autopsy of Terrell Boykin, a 19-year-old Cumberland County man who was shot to death in 2011. Authorities have yet to charge anyone in Boykin’s death.

The investigation began in September with a tip, according to Woodall, who asked the SBI to investigate. The SBI has completed a report on the allegations, Woodall said.

While authorities would not divulge details of the allegations against Nichols, a state law makes it a crime for anyone to alter, destroy or steal evidence connected to a criminal case.

Woodall’s district includes Chapel Hill, where Nichols and other state pathologists until recently performed autopsies. The state medical examiner’s office moved from Chapel Hill to Raleigh in late 2012.

The medical examiner’s office is responsible for performing autopsies in thousands of sudden and unexpected deaths each year.

Autopsies often prove key to solving murder cases because the victims’ bodies provide important clues. The examinations frequently identify what sort of weapon was used, and may even reveal the type of gun and bullet.

The state’s pathologists are busy. Since early 2011, Nichols has performed more than 900 autopsies for the medical examiners office, an Observer analysis of state data shows. That includes more than 400 autopsies last year.

The National Association of Medical Examiners, an organization that sets guidelines for death investigations, recommends that pathologists not perform more than 250 autopsies in a single year. That’s because mistakes can result from large caseloads, the group says.

Since 2001, 16 state pathologists exceeded the recommended workload, the Observer found.

Office changes

The investigation comes amid restructuring at the medical examiner’s office.

In a memo obtained by the Observer, N.C. Department of Health and Human Services officials told staff that Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Deborah Radisch is no longer acting as the agency's top administrator.

The memo, dated Nov. 1, says that on a temporary basis Radisch will “primarily focus on the forensic pathology aspects of her position.” Those duties include conducting autopsies on an emergency basis, reviewing cases and completing autopsy reports.

The changes will “assist the OCME in managing its current workload,” the memo states.

Lou Turner, deputy chief of epidemiology for the state Division of Public Health, will assume Radisch’s administrative duties, the document says.

Reached by phone, Radisch referred questions to the DHHS communications office.

Department spokesman Ricky Diaz said officials made the change to allow Radisch to focus on her caseload until January when two new pathologists will join her agency.

Even with her administrative duties, Radisch performed more than 200 autopsies in both 2011 and 2012, the Observer found. In 2010, the year she became chief medical examiner, she was one of the state’s busiest pathologists with a caseload of about 440 autopsies – well over the recommended number.

Agency under spotlight

The SBI investigation represents another embarrassment for DHHS, an agency that has been under fire for a series of political hires and alleged mishandling of several death investigations.

The department came under scrutiny earlier this year when news reports surfaced about big raises for two former campaign workers for Gov. Pat McCrory and the hiring of a campaign donor.

Also this year, medical examiners failed to promptly alert authorities or a Boone hotel that carbon monoxide killed an older couple at the hotel in April. In June, 11-year-old Jeffrey Williams died of carbon monoxide poisoning in the same hotel room. Authorities later found a pool heater under the room was leaking the deadly gas.

Several families are suing DHHS, alleging egregious investigative errors by medical examiners. In one 2005 case, a Franklin County medical examiner declared a man dead and sent his unconscious body to the morgue, zipped inside a body bag. At the morgue, the medical examiner discovered the man was alive. The man’s family claims the mistake has left him bedridden and unable to speak.

A mysterious shooting

The SBI investigation stems from an early morning shooting spree in Cumberland County that left Boykin and another man dead.

State records show Nichols performed Boykin’s autopsy on May 10, 2011, two days after the shooting. Boykin died from a gunshot wound to the head, the records show.

County District Attorney Billy West said no one has been charged in Boykin’s death, and it remains an unsolved homicide.

“I can confirm that we became aware of the SBI investigation because it could possibly relate to the Boykin case,” West said. “ … I can’t comment on any underlying facts at this juncture.”

Boykin's mother, Laquisha Jacobs, said Wednesday that no one told her about the SBI investigation into Nichols.

“I don't know what's going on,” said Jacobs, who lives in Fayetteville. “I am very disappointed. I am very upset.”

Nichols, 58, could not be reached for comment Tuesday or Wednesday.

He joined the state medical examiner’s office in 2011 after working as a forensic pathologist in South Carolina for more than 20 years.

He has served as a fellow in the College of American Pathologists. The N.C. Medical Board, which licenses doctors, lists no adverse actions against him.

He earns an annual salary of more than $192,000, state records show.

Diaz, the DHHS spokesman, wrote in an email that department officials are “aware of the investigation and are fully cooperating.” He declined to comment further.

Off: 704-358-6038; Alexander: 704-358-5060; Clasen-Kelly: 704-358-5027

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