STEVE INSKEEP, host:
On the TV series "CSI," heroic forensic pathologists uncover the truth. In reality, the offices of many coroners and medical examiners are underfunded and under-supervised.
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
NPR, working with Frontline and Pro Publica, has examined the death investigation system in America for our series Post Mortem. Often mistakes don't come to light until families challenge the official version of how a loved one died.
And in Oklahoma, some families are trying to change the law to force medical examiners to do more autopsies. NPR's Sandra Bartlett reports.
SANDRA BARTLETT: In Oklahoma, if you die in a car crash or in a workplace accident, it's unlikely the medical examiner's office will investigate or do an autopsy. And if you're over the age of 40 and die suddenly but not violently, there won't be an autopsy either.
Ms. MICHELLE SPEZIALE: How could they say it was a suicide if they've never even did an autopsy.
BARTLETT: That's Michelle Speziale, whose daughter died in 2009. Hers is one of a dozen families who came to the state house in Oklahoma City demanding change. They call themselves Justice for the Dead. They believe their loved ones did not get fair treatment from the Oklahoma Medical Examiner's Office. The office is supposed to investigate violent and unexpected deaths and report on what happened.
Among states, Oklahoma is at the extreme end of what is a self-regulating system. Many medical examiner offices across the country are forced by small budgets and a shortage of staff to pick and choose which deaths to autopsy. At the other end of the spectrum is New Mexico, where all sudden and suspicious deaths are investigated.
These families in Oklahoma wants the same.
Mr. JOE TURNER: If I covered up a murder, I'm going to prison. They're doing it every day.
(Soundbite of papers rustling)
Ms. DONNA TURNER: That's an old, old one. She's about a year old there.
BARTLETT: Joe Turner and his wife Donna drove two hours from their home outside Oklahoma City for the rally. For 10 years, they've been fighting the medical examiner's office to find out what really happened to their 23-year-old daughter Chanda.
Ms. TURNER: And there she is at the actual wedding.
BARTLETT: Chanda Turner died in 2000 of a gunshot wound to her upper chest. Her boyfriend told police he woke up around midnight and found her slumped over the back steps bleeding.
In Oklahoma, police have control of the crime scene but the medical examiner's office is in charge of the body. They're looking for signs of what caused an unexpected death.
In Chanda Turner's case, when the investigator from the medical examiner's office arrived at the home, police told them the boyfriend Chanda was suicidal and likely shot herself. No autopsy was ordered. Donna Turner was shocked.
Ms. TURNER: It is a violent, suspicious death. And according to the state statutes, that should have required an autopsy.
BARTLETT: Donna and Joe Turner never believed their daughter killed herself and they made it their mission to find out who shot her.
Ms. TURNER: We buried Chanda in the best vault and the best casket and everything to try to preserve her body as much because our goal was that we were going to get that autopsy someday.
BARTLETT: The Turners hired a former police officer to gather reports, interview emergency responders, friends and family. He produced 300 pages of documents that raised a lot of questions. The Turners took the file to lawyer Jaye Mendros.
Ms. JAYE MENDROS (Lawyer): Well, then we started going through the crime scene photos and there's blood all through the house. There are signs of a fight in the living room, including broken glass under the coffee table, the mattress he supposedly slept on through the shooting event is covered in blood.
BARTLETT: Mendros sent the photos and the report to legal and medical experts for an opinion, like Dr. Robert Bux, who's a medical examiner in Colorado.
Dr. ROBERT BUX (Medical Examiner, Colorado Springs, Colorado): Her right hand had been tucked into a waistband, and that's not the way people die. And it looked like the body had been moved from one place to another.
BARTLETT: Then Mendros took the opinions and the report to the district attorney. The district attorney ordered the body exhumed for an autopsy. For Joe and Donna Turner, it had been a nine-year battle.
Ms. TURNER: I'll never forget the sound of that vault when it cracked open. To think that this is my daughter being dug up from the grave because somebody didn't do their job.
BARTLETT: And autopsy was performed by Oklahoma's new Chief Medical Examiner Collie Trant with Dr. Bux observing. They both agreed that Chanda's death was a homicide.
Dr. COLLIE TRANT (Forensic Pathologist): And all the evidence certainly suggested that she didn't shoot herself.
BARTLETT: But before Trant could write up his autopsy report, he was fired. He's suing for wrongful dismissal. Another pathologist in the medical examiner's office was handed the file and refused to change the death certificate.
Joe Turner says the autopsy report on his daughter was a joke.
Mr. TURNER: They give us a report. This report with her birthday wrong, the time of death is wrong, everything is wrong on it.
BARTLETT: Mendros tried to get a meeting with the state board that oversees the office but she was refused. Chris Ferguson is the vice chairman of that medical legal investigations board.
Mr. CHRIS FERGUSON (Vice Chairman, Medical Legal Investigations Board): Oklahoma does not have the best reputation with our medical examiner's system. I think it's very well known that our facilities need updated, our staffing is an issue, our budget is an issue.
BARTLETT: Ferguson says the Chanda Turner case is finished.
Why would you take the decision of someone who just looked at the paperwork over the two doctors who actually did the autopsy?
Mr. FERGUSON: Well, at the time that the autopsy was done, Dr. Trant was an employee of the agency. And then whenever the family petitioned the office, he was no longer an employee of the agency.
BARTLETT: You could see how frustrating this must be for the family because they were told by these pathologists that they believe, given the autopsy that they did, that this was a homicide. And because of some bureaucratic confusion or something they can't get this death certificate changed to a homicide, even though the autopsy indicates that that's what it was.
Mr. FERGUSON: All I can rely on is are current employees of the agency and what their determination is. And I have full faith in their decision.
BARTLETT: The Turners decided the only way to fix the medical examiner's office was to change the law that governs it. They found a sympathetic state senator who will introduce legislation later this year. It would force the office to examine and autopsy all sudden and suspicious deaths.
Joe and Donna started a petition to gather support for the change. It's been 10 frustrating years, but Donna and Joe Turner are not going to quit.
Mr. TURNER: We're going to fix the Oklahoma Medical Examiner's Office. Somebody's got to step forward and show these politicians that they still work for the people.
BARTLETT: Across the country, medical examiners' offices lack sufficient funding to handle their caseloads and oversight to correct flaws in the way they operate. No one has fought harder to get the system to respond to them than the Turners. They've hired an investigator, spent thousands of dollars and even tried to rewrite a state law, but still they have not been able to get the Oklahoma medical examiner's office to change their daughter's death certificate.
Sandra Bartlett, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.