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State Senate hearing set on New Jersey's dysfunctional medical examiner system

  • State

New Jersey state Sen. Joe Vitale, responding to media reports about failings in the state’s medical examiner system and a pledge to support reforms by incoming-Gov. Phil Murphy, is planning a lame-duck session hearing on the dysfunctional system. Vitale, a prominent Democratic senator who chairs the Health Committee, plans the session for Jan. 4 as a prelude to attempts to legislate sweeping reforms, especially increasing oversight over the patchwork of medical examiners offices throughout the state.

Media highlighting these issues has given it "a sense of urgency," Vitale says. He intends to call two regional medical examiners whose work has come under scrutiny in high-profile cases examined by PhillyVoice, "In Jersey"magazine and The reporting in those publications has given the reform movement “a sense of urgency,” Vitale said Monday. Dr. Eddy Lilavois, of the state-run Northern Regional Medical Examiner’s Office in Newark, and Dr. Gerald Feigin, who oversees the regional office covering Gloucester, Camden and Salem counties, but who had also performed autopsies on a per diem basis for the state-run Southern Regional Medical Examiner’s office, will be invited to the hearing, Vitale said. “Whether they attend or not is another thing,” added Vitale. He does expect the state’s medical examiner, Dr. Andrew Falzon, and former New Jersey pathologists who quit in disgust or frustration to testify. Both Lilavois' and Feigin's careers derailed due to mistakes made in New York
and Massachusetts, respectively, but were able to find work in New Jersey despite their baggage. Lilavois had ruled a child’s death homicide in New York, with suspicion wrongly falling on the boy’s dad, only to later admit the child had died of an aneurysm. That mistake broke up the man’s marriage and harmed his career. In New Jersey, Lilavois autopsied the bodies of John and Joyce Sheridan three years ago following their bizarre deaths at home. Both were stabbed repeatedly, their locked bedroom set ablaze, a blazing armoire atop John Sheridan. Adding to the intrigue, John Sheridan was the CEO of Cooper Health System in Camden then and had been a power player in Republican government circles for decades. Lilavois, who is not board certified, eventually ruled the Sheridan’s deaths were a murder/suicide, a finding the Sheridan family successfully challenged after hiring independent pathologist Dr. Michael Baden. The reversal of the death finding also led to the ouster of the then-Somerset County prosecutor. Joyce Sheridan’s death remains a homicide, but her husband’s death is now classified as “undetermined.” For his part, Feigin made a finding years ago that a Boston nanny dropped an infant 20 feet, only to later admit that a drop of as little as two feet could have killed the child. As a result of his admission under questioning by noted lawyer Barry Scheck, the convicted woman was released by a judge on just time served. Near the same time, Feigin was also reversed by a supervisor in Massachusetts after ruling a guidance counselor’s death a homicide caused by a juvenile. But the adult murder charges the teen faced were downgraded to assault when it came to light just before trial that Feigin had only examined the man’s heart visually, not microscopically, despite the man having heart disease. Feigin was the first of three medical examiners to autopsy Brendan Creato, a 3-year-old found dead in Camden County. Feigin found no precise cause of death, just a lack of oxygen. He ran no rape kit even though the boy’s pajamas and diaper were pulled down. He did not visit the scene where the boy’s body was discovered until five days after the body was found. A death investigator who works for Feigin appears to have done little more than haul the child’s body to the morgue in Gloucester County, failing to document or investigate the scene. Feigin came to court with part of a wrong report in the murder trial of the boy’s father, David “DJ” Creato. Flustered on the stand, Feigin’s performance prompted the Camden County Prosecutor’s Office to try to settle the case with a plea deal for 20 years, which was rejected, according to defense lawyer Richard J. Fuschino Jr. The case ended with a mistrial, hung 10 to 2. Instead of going through with another promised trial, the Camden Prosecutor’s Office quietly made a plea deal for just 10 years in a virtually empty courtroom. They initially sought 30 years in prison. The Camden Prosecutor’s Office on Monday declined comment on Feigin’s role in the Creato trial, except to point out that DJ Creato pled guilty. Feigin makes $ 234,218 from Gloucester County, with his salary also split among Camden and Salem counties. He had additional income from doing per diem autopsy work and from his role as a military reservist; he performs autopsies at Dover Air Force base in Delaware. Feigin also ballroom dances competitively, sings opera, collects rocks and has a house in Somers Point, as well as in Gloucester County. He lived in a tent for a time in the yard of his Gloucester County home before discovering the Gloucester County house had a mold issue which made him ill. In another Camden County death case, Feigin and his scene investigator left a woman’s severed hand — four fingers and her knuckles — along a roadway in Winslow Township. The bloody hand, rings still in place, was found two days later by the woman’s adult children, adjacent to a utility pole. They and their father are suing Feigin and his death investigator. Feigin, according a analysis, had performed more autopsies than any other single medical examiner in the state — in excess of national standards meant to assure quality work. Many of the autopsies were done as side work and additional pay for the state’s Southern Regional Medical Examiner’s Office, which covers Atlantic, Cape May and Cumberland counties. Following the expose, Feigin was ordered to stop accepting per diem work by his direct employer, Gloucester County, according to county spokeswoman Debra Silletto. She also said, “There has never been a complaint to the county about Dr. Feigin’s accuracy of naming cause of death in the 19 years he has served Gloucester County.” That does not satisfy Vitale. Feigin’s hiring in New Jersey should not have happened without a review of his history and credentials by the state medical examiner, not just a political appointment. Vitale wants all future pathologist hires vetted by the state’s medical examiner. “We should have medical examiners with the highest credentials,” said Vitale, not be refuge for those who are either not board certified or who make mistakes. Ironically, Feigin’s hiring 19 years ago was championed by Steve Sweeney, a powerful fellow Democrat and the state Senate president, when Sweeney was still director of the Gloucester County Freeholders. Sweeney spoke up for Feigin despite national attention on the so-called Boston Nanny Case. Requests for comment to Sweeney’s office and the Senate leadership office received no response over the course of several days. Vitale said more resources and personnel must be committed to medical examiner’s offices, especially since the opioid epidemic has “crushed” an already fragile system. Mark Sheridan, a lawyer who is the son of John and Joyce Sheridan, welcomed talk of revising the medical examiner system in New Jersey. “They are supposed to be independent. Instead, they are hacks,” Sheridan said on Sunday.
Sunday, May 19, 2024
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