Local law enforcement authorities say a proposal to hire a forensic pathologist for northeast Kansas is a good idea, but they're split on whether Douglas County should chip in for such a specialist.
Saying that a shortage of forensic pathologists qualified to conduct autopsies is delaying criminal investigations, officials in several counties and cities have discussed the possibility of hiring a specialist who would serve a wide area.
Lawrence Police Chief Ron Olin and Douglas County Undersheriff Don Dalquest both said they saw merits in the plan. Dalquest said he thought Douglas County should help pay for the doctor's salary.
But Olin said that Douglas County, in effect, already has a forensic specialist in Kris Sperry, an Atlanta doctor who has participated in several investigations over the past three years. Sperry is a Lawrence native.
"I would have to say that while the concept is interesting and may be advantageous in the future, at present we are not suffering a lack of expertise in this area," Olin said.
Dalquest said he supports paying for the specialist because Sperry may not always be able to return home to conduct autopsies.
"If he's tied up on another matter, or something, we could run into a lot of problems," Dalquest said.
Salaries for forensic pathologists typically are between $85,000 and $100,000 a year. Proponents of the plan say the costs could be shared among cities, counties and law enforcement agencies that would use the forensic pathologist.
A forensic pathologist is a doctor with specialized training in investigating deaths, especially those caused by trauma or under suspicious conditions.
The results of such investigations are often entered as evidence in court cases and could mean the difference in a defendant's acquittal or conviction.
During the recent trial in Douglas County District Court of a 29-year-old man charged with killing a 23-month-old child, for instance, Sperry testified that the fatal injuries the child suffered could only have been caused by a massive blow to the victim's midsection. The defendant, Donald Bruce, had admitted to plunging his knee into the child's stomach.
Bruce was convicted of first-degree murder and child abuse.
Dalquest said a forensic pathologist can supply more information about a death than a regular coroner.
"A forensic pathologist will tell you what to look for," he said. "He'll tell you the cause of death and how it happened."