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:
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.
MICHELLE SPEZIALE: How could they say it was a suicide if they've never even did an autopsy.
BARTLETT: These families in Oklahoma wants the same.
JOE TURNER: If I covered up a murder, I'm going to prison. They're doing it every day.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAPERS RUSTLING)
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.
TURNER: And there she is at the actual wedding.
BARTLETT: 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.
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.
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.
JAYE MENDROS: 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.
ROBERT BUX: 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.
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.
COLLIE TRANT: And all the evidence certainly suggested that she didn't shoot herself.
BARTLETT: Joe Turner says the autopsy report on his daughter was a joke.
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.
CHRIS FERGUSON: 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: Why would you take the decision of someone who just looked at the paperwork over the two doctors who actually did the autopsy?
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.
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: 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.
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: Sandra Bartlett, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And you're listening to MORNING EDITION, from NPR News.
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