Questions about the ME’s office are delaying criminal cases in Lubbock

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The scandal at the Lubbock County Medical Examiner’s office, which was raided by the FBI last week after lawsuits and complaints alleging everything from body-part harvesting to illegally conducted autopsies, is holding up dozens of court cases.

“We have not been able to move forward,” said Rusty Gunter, a defense attorney in Lubbock. “Any case that involves death is in limbo.”

At the least, the questions surrounding the ME’s office are delaying the justice process in Lubbock County. Beyond that, it appears that the problems are reducing the state’s ability to use important potential witnesses in death-related cases.

The state often puts someone from the medical examiner’s office, or working on behalf of the medical examiner’s office, on the witness stand to tell a jury about the cause and manner of death in criminal cases.

Gunter said he was recently representing a client in a nearby county, a murder case in which the Lubbock County ME’s office did the autopsy.

“The prosecutor came to me and said, ‘We’ve got a problem,’ ” Gunter said. As a result, the prosecutor offered a plea agreement that Gunter’s client accepted, in return for a 30-year sentence.

“The criminal bar is in limbo as far as these investigations go. Any case that involves death is on hold until we get this situation figured out,” he said.

The accused, meanwhile, have to wait.

For now, “We just have to tell them, ‘Sorry,’ ” said Gunter, who has practiced in the region for 18 years.

The Lubbock County District Attorney’s office in January asked the Texas Rangers to investigate allegations regarding the ME’s office. At the same time, the office advised defense attorneys that it would not be using personnel from the ME’s office as witnesses in criminal cases.

Lubbock County Chief Prosecutor Barron Slack did not respond to either a call or email seeking comment.

Several former ME employees have voiced concern in court filings about the practices of San Diego-based NAAG Pathology Labs, which was hired by Lubbock County commissioners to run the medical examiner’s office in August 2018. 

The contract — worth a reported $2.4 million — includes services to 19 other counties in the region. The contract ended this week.  The work is now being handled by Tarrant County’s medical examiner until a replacement can be found.

In the meantime, the Lubbock medical examiner’s office and NAAG are parties to numerous actions in civil courts.

A former employee of the office in February filed a lawsuit against NAAG, its CEO Evan Matshes and NAAG pathologist Sam Andrews. The exemployee alleged that the ME’s office was harvesting body parts for research purposes and that Matshes was illegally conducting autopsies because he is not a licensed physician in Texas.

The lawsuit was dismissed by a judge in June; the plaintiff is appealing the decision.

Separately, the Texas Medical Board cleared Matshes of the allegation of practicing medicine without a license.

State law does not require a person to hold a medical license to perform an autopsy, although a licensed physician must sign off on the findings, presumably after a review.

“Having someone [who is not a physician] doing various things that a medical examiner can do is not unusual,” said Jarrett Schneider, a spokesman for the Texas Medical Board. “For example, in Travis County, you would have a whole team doing various things, but ultimately the person signing off on determinations of death would be a licensed physician.”

The allegation about body-part harvesting is still being litigated in another action. A Lubbock resident filed a separate lawsuit alleging the harvesting of parts for research. That case is also in the appeals court after a lower-court judge denied a motion by NAAG to dismiss it.

Matshes could not be reached for comment. He has denied any improper, illegal or unethical behavior.

Records show Matshes was a licensed physician in Texas in 2012 but did not pay his $500 license renewal fee and the license expired on Sept. 4, 2013.

Lubbock County has had problems with its medical examiner’s office for decades, most notably with Ralph Erdmann, who served the county and the surrounding areas in the 1980s. After defense lawyers in the region raised questions, a review of his work found that in some cases, Erdmann had not cut open the bodies that he claimed to have autopsied.

Defendants in 20 murder cases used that review as a basis for appealing their convictions. Several convictions were upheld at a considerable cost to the state; it is not clear whether any of the convictions were overturned. Erdmann died in 2010.

Lubbock County Commissioner Jason Corley said the FBI investigation is based on the removal of tissues and organs from bodies and the alleged transport of those materials across state lines. He said federal agents have talked to him and several other commissioners. “People came to me soon after NAAG took over the [medical examiner’s] contract,” Corley said, “and told me that Matshes was taking more than tissue samples, and that he was taking organs and not telling the families.”

Corley, who was elected as commissioner shortly after the NAAG contract was approved, has been critical of Matshes and NAAG.

He’s aware of how the allegations sound to a neutral onlooker.

“If I came up to you and said, ‘The new ME is stealing body parts,’ you’d think I was crazy, and I don’t blame you,” he said.

Despite the numerous claims and critics, though, there have been no arrests.

Matshes remains a well-regarded pathologist and a licensed physician in several states including New Mexico, California and Florida.

Steve Miller can be reached at [email protected].

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