All murder mysteries begin with a body. And in every story from “The Wizard of Oz” to “CSI,” we need a medical examiner, pathologist or coroner to declare that the deceased is not merely dead, but really most sincerely dead.
The popular “CSI” franchise assures us that homicides are investigated by experts with the latest in 21st-century technology. Tuesday night’s can’t-miss “Frontline” (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings) “Post Mortem” argues that this couldn’t be further from the truth. It exposes the remarkably inconsistent and frequently incompetent jobs performed by elected coroners and forensic pathologists.
In too many towns and counties, pathologists have no experience or relevant expertise, and they are overwhelmed, understaffed and work in facilities 50 years behind the times. One pathologist describes autopsies performed in garages with only a single light bulb for illumination.
Again, as any fan of “CSI” knows, autopsy reports are crucial to homicide investigations and prosecution. A botched report can send the wrong person to prison, or cover up a murder and allow a killer to go free. And in public health, post-mortem investigations are also the front line of defense, warning medical experts against possible epidemics.
“Post Mortem” follows several crucial cases. In one, a husband fell under suspicion for suffocating his wife after he had reported her apparent suicide. But investigation into the private facility that issued the autopsy report revealed a pathologist with a record of severe alcoholism and serial incompetence. Prosecutors were forced to drop the charges. In another case, a South Carolina coroner felt forced to cremate the decaying remains of a “John Doe” because he had no proper refrigerated place to store the cadaver. The plight of the victim, and his shoddy treatment, came to light only when it later became known that “John Doe” was the missing father of NBA star Michael Jordan.
Qualifications vary from state to state and from one country to another. After the scandal of Michael Jordan’s father, the county changed its laws to require that its coroner have at least a high school diploma. One county had employed a blind coroner for decades!
Most of the experts interviewed here agree that this is a nation-wide scandal that requires federal attention.
This is an exceptional, gripping report, even by “Frontline” standards. Budding crime novelists should not miss this and should take notes while watching.
Tonight’s other highlights
• “Pioneers of Television” (7 p.m., PBS) celebrates classic crime dramas.
• Erica discovers rifts in the resistance on “V” (8 p.m., ABC).
• Alicia’s client makes a sudden confession on “The Good Wife” (9 p.m., CBS)
• Fitch falls under suspicion on “Detroit 1-8-7” (9 p.m., ABC).
• Light’s brother may be in too deep on “Lights Out” (9 p.m., FX).
• Women of various ages discuss alcohol on “Seven Ages of Drinking” (9 p.m., BBC America), the first of a four-part series to discuss drinking, love, marriage and pregnancy.