Medical examiner separated from exempt appointment

Nov. 07, 2013 @ 09:52 PM

CHARLOTTE — A top official at the N.C. Medical Examiner's Office who's being investigated by state law enforcement officers is no longer on the job, officials said.

Another top official, the department's chief medical examiner, is going to focus temporarily focus on pathology while another official takes over her administrative duties.

Dr. Clay Nichols, the department's deputy chief medical examiner, "was separated from his exempt appointment in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner" effective Tuesday, said Ricky Diaz, spokesman for the state Department of Health and Human Services.

Diaz's statement came after a spokeswoman for the state Attorney General's Office said the State Bureau of Investigation was looking into allegations involving Nichols. Spokeswoman Noelle Talley said the SBI began the investigation Sept. 26 at the request of Orange County District Attorney Jim Woodall.

Neither Talley nor Diaz would elaborate on what the allegations were.

Woodall's district includes Chapel Hill, where state medical examiners previously conducted autopsies. The state medical examiner's office moved from to Raleigh in late 2012.

The Charlotte Observer first reported the investigation. Woodall told the newspaper that the SBI has completed a report on the allegations and he expects to decide soon whether to file charges.

The medical examiner's office said Nichols was unavailable Thursday. A home listing couldn't be found. It was not clear if Nichols has an attorney.

Diaz earlier told the newspaper that Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Deborah Radisch is no longer acting as the agency's top administrator. Diaz said the change was made to allow Radisch to focus on her caseload until next year, when two more pathologists will join the agency.

The Charlotte Observer had obtained a memo dated Nov. 1 that said that Radisch will "primarily focus on the forensic pathology aspects of her position" on a temporary basis. Those duties include conducting autopsies on an emergency basis, reviewing cases and completing autopsy reports, the newspaper said.

The changes will "assist the OCME in managing its current workload," the memo states. The deputy chief of epidemiology for the state Division of Public Health, Lou Turner, will assume Radisch's administrative duties, the document says.

An Observer analysis of state data shows that Nichols has performed more than 900 autopsies for the state medical examiner's office since early 2011. He conducted more than 400 autopsies last year, the newspaper said.

The National Association of Medical Examiners, an organization that sets guidelines for death investigations, says mistakes can result from large workloads. It recommends that pathologists not perform more than 250 autopsies a year.

Since 2001, 16 state pathologists exceeded the recommended workload, the Observer found.