Another One Bites The Dust

Elizabeth Peacock resigns from Travis County Medical Examiner's Office

After 10 years, Chief Deputy Medical Examiner Elizabeth Peacock on May 15 told county officials that she will leave the embattled Travis Co. Medical Examiner's Office at the close of business July 1. "I hope the Commissioners Court will someday understand how critical the Medical Examiner's Office is to the function of law enforcement, the judicial system, and the community as a whole," Peacock wrote in a letter to County Judge Sam Biscoe. "The hopes you have for the office are admirable, but those hopes are far from the reality of today."

The TCME has come under increasing scrutiny over the last year, as embarrassing errors – such as a former pathologist misidentifying the remains of an elderly woman as those of a twentysomething man – and high-profile foibles – such as the public dissemination of incorrect toxicology results in the Daniel Rocha police shooting case – have trickled out into the public view. (Rocha was shot and killed by Austin Police Officer Julie Schroeder last summer; the ME's office first reported finding no drugs in Rocha's system, then later retracted that result, announcing that Rocha had trace amounts of marijuana in his system the night he was killed.) Moreover, a picture of an overworked staff of pathologists has been emerging, as the county embarks on a plan to seek national accreditation for the office from the National Association of Medical Examiners. An audit of office operations conducted last year revealed that the four pathologists then employed by the office were each conducting more than 400 autopsies per year, in some cases far exceeding NAME's 350 autopsy limit. And in the last several months, the three remaining pathologists – Doctors Suzanna Dana, Peacock, and Chief ME Roberto Bayardo have each resigned their positions with the office. Dana resigned earlier this year, but has since agreed to do contract work when needed (it looks like she'll certainly be in demand in the weeks and months to come); Bayardo last month handed in the notice that he is retiring after 30 years with the county but said he'll stay until county officials can find a replacement; and last week Peacock announced she is out of there this summer. In sum, Peacock's resignation means that, aside from part-time contractors and apart from Bayardo's promise to stick around for a few more months, the county is left without a single full-time pathologist that wants to stick it out for the long haul – and all omens suggest it'll be a very long haul before the office gets itself back on track.

Indeed, in her resignation letter, Peacock, explains that instead of offering her the same salary, or one comparable to the salary the county has posted in its want ad seeking pathologists to join the department, the county – as its first, last, and only offer – offered Peacock roughly $20,000 less per year in compensation, despite the fact that the county seemingly expects her to maintain the same breakneck caseload. "Failing to offer competitive salaries that take into consideration these working conditions and the very limited availability of qualified pathologists will only perpetuate the problems this office, and the community have had," Peacock concluded. Still, amazingly, in his comments to the Statesman, Biscoe seemed entirely unfazed by Peacock's assertions – saying, unbelievably, that she's expressed a "level of frustration down there that we had not suspected" – or by the conundrum the county faces, making it sound as if Peacock's complaints are purely monetary in nature. Biscoe told the daily that he "disagrees" with her assessment of the salary offer but said if that's how she feels then, "I think she did the right thing if she doesn't think she can take us where we want to go," he said.

*Oops! The following correction ran in the June 2, 2006 issue: Last week in "Another One Bites the Dust," a news story about the Travis County Medical Examiner's Office, we wrote that Elizabeth Peacock has been with the TCME for 14 years. She has actually been with the office for 10 years. The Chronicle regrets the error.

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Travis County Medical Examiner's Office, Elizabeth Peacock, Sam Biscoe, Roberto Bayardo, Suzanna Dana, Travis Co. Medical Examiner's Office, TCME, National Association of Medical Examiners, NAME, Daniel Rocha

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