Body of Evidence: Inside the investigation

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A year-long KXAN Investigation reveals a mounting autopsy caseload at the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office for nearly three decades – with the office chief far exceeding national standards for quality and control.

KXAN poured over the morgue’s handwritten logs of the more than 55,000 body examinations from 1979-2006 – the years spanning the career of former Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Roberto Bayardo. After time-intensive analysis, we discovered Bayardo consistently performed between 395 and 823 autopsies each year, including a small portion of visual examinations. The National Association of Medical Examiners recommends no more than 325 annually.

More than half of Bayardo’s total examinations involved performing autopsies for 45 other counties over time. For each of those autopsies, investigators learned he received at least an additional $200-300. In the end, it supplemented his county salary by nearly $2.6 million.

We decided to identify past high-profile murders called into question in the media – those where the person convicted had later been exonerated, had a stay of execution or had been granted an appeal. KXAN compared the criminal cases with the autopsy logs and court records to determine if the victim’s body was examined by Bayardo.

Through public information requests, we then obtained court testimony transcripts for those cases in which he served as a witness – some of them decades old. For the handful that we chose to focus on, we examined how Bayardo impacted the cases by changing his opinion.

We also obtained Bayardo’s sworn statements in those cases in which he changed his opinion to compare with what he had said in his previous testimony. In each, he reconsidered his findings, new evidence or scientific methods had come to light, or his opinion had been misconstrued.

To find out how those developments could relate to Bayardo’s mounting caseload, we interviewed an autopsy expert at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, who told us moving through cases quickly could increase the room for error when examining bodies.

Bayardo, who retired in 2006, agreed to an interview after we located him at a retirement home in Houston. He explained his high autopsy amount was due in part to a lack of funding and resources from the county.

In reviewing old KXAN video clips and also county audits of the medical examiner’s office, we learned Bayardo eventually received more funding, staff and a new morgue to keep up with the high caseload-though his autopsy count never slowed down. County commissioners formalized the agreement with other counties to make sure both Bayardo and the county received money.

The agreement was detailed in a 1992 commissioners court archive video with Bayardo, which we received through a Texas Public Information Act request. We narrowed down the exact date by searching through commissioners court meeting minutes throughout the 1990s, directed to that timeframe during an interview with a former county judge, who suggested Bayardo had a financial incentive to increase his autopsy numbers.

We had to rely on interviews with that judge and other former members of the commissioners court, as a current member who served during Bayardo’s tenure was hesitant to speak about the matter, though the medical examiner’s office has improved considerably in the time since Bayardo’s retirement, according to experts.

Prosecutors were also hesitant to speak. They still call Bayardo as a witness in criminal cases to this day. In surveying upcoming court dockets, we found he is currently slated to deliver testimony in a high-profile murder from 1988.

In an effort to determine if Bayardo could ever face consequences, we discovered the Texas Medical Board rarely disciplines medical examiners. An analysis of requested data of all physician disciplinary actions in the last three decades statewide revealed only five medical examiners on the list.

In searching for precedent, we concluded any criminal or civil case would be challenging without hard proof of deliberate mishandling of an autopsy-as seen in a very small number of cases against Texas medical examiners in recent decades. Plus, Bayardo is no longer practicing.

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