There were a couple of noteworthy central Texas crime stories this morning.
- Fort Hood solider gets life for Killeen murder
- Sports car driver’s alleged drunken car chase nets him a felony charge
Determining What Killed You
Hopefully this will be the last post about the Matt Baker trial. However, the coverage of this trial has had some great stuff in there. The Waco Tribune interviewed some of the jurors about their thoughts on the trial. There was a quote from one of the jurors that I thought deserved some discussion.
Maske said one revelation from trial testimony that sat badly with him and others on the panel was the investigation into Kari’s death by the Hewitt Police Department and the subsequent suicide ruling by Justice of the Peace Billy Martin, who did not visit the scene and made that determination over the telephone.
“Hopefully, because of the way this one was handled, if something like that happens again, some lessons have been learned,” he said.
What this juror is talking about is the process used to determine the cause of death. In Texas when someone dies, a death certificate is generated. The death certificate is the legal document recording the person’s identity, the date, time and cause of death, just like a birth certificate records a person’s birth.
If a person dies under the care of a licensed physician, the attending physician can sign off on the cause of death. This happens usually if the patient has been under the care of the physician for some time and the person is at the end stage of some chronic disease process. This makes sense, after all the physician is a trained scientist and is familiar enough with the patient to make a reasoned judgment about what caused their patient’s death.
However, if you aren’t under the care of a physician, or your physician is not certain of what caused your death, your cause of death may be determined by the Justice of The Peace. The Justice of The Peace or JP is a minor court official in Texas. The problem is, the JP is not a scientist, in fact he’s not even usually a trained lawyer. He’s an elected official.
Now, this isn’t to knock JP’s. Most of them I have dealt with over the years are great people who serve their community well and usually do it for a very nominal salary. My problem is with the process.
Here’s the JP’s trial testimony as covered by the Waco Tribune in their live blog of the trial:
3:37 p.m. — The state calls its eighth witness, Justice of the Peace Billy Martin. Prosecutor Crawford Long is questioning him. Martin says he’s been a JP for 12 years. Martin says, as a justice of the peace, he sets bonds at the jail, holds truancy court and does inquests into deaths. He’s also a wedding officiant and signs warrants for officers. He also holds driver’s license hearings. In response to Long’s questioning, Martin says that part of his job is to determine whether an autopsy should be ordered on a body. Martin says he received a call from a Hewitt officer on April 8, 2006. Martin says that he was told the death “appeared to be a suicide.” He said, “After all the information was relayed to me, I declined an autopsy on the case. The investigators were on the scene. I was not. I was at my home. I asked if there were any bullet holes, stab wounds, and they said there was not.” Martin says the officers told them about the open bottle of pills and the suicide note. Martin says he asked the officer whether it was his opinion it was a suicide. “I said, ‘Ok, that’s good enough for me.’”
Now in Kari Baker’s case, it wasn’t a suicide, but an elaborately staged murder scene.
An autopsy is a post mortem examination of a deceased person by a licensed physician usually a specialist trained in pathology. It usually includes an examination of the body, the internal organs and brain, lab tests on blood and other bodily fluids and occasionally x-rays. They are usually very thorough investigations conducted by trained scientists, that determine what caused a person’s death.
Now to be fair, the JP in Kari Baker’s case relied on what he was told by the police officers on scene. But in relying on their information, the process began to veer away from being an impartial determination of the cause of death. In fact, had it not been for the dogged determination of Kari’s parents, Matt Baker would have gotten away with a murder most foul.
In light of this trial, I wouldn’t be surprised if at least one central Texas JP is more likely to order an autopsy before declaring a cause of death and signing his name to a death certificate.