REVIEW: OCME: Life in America’s Top Forensic Medical Center by Bruce Goldfarb
Perfect for fans of Michael Lewis and David Simon (Homicide, The Corner, The Wire, We Own This City)
Real life is different from what gets depicted on procedural crime dramas.
Equipped with a journalist’s eye, a paramedic’s experience and a sardonic wit, Bruce Goldfarb spent ten years with Maryland’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, where every sudden or unattended death in the state is scrutinized.
Touching on numerous scandals, including Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd and the tragic killing in police custody of Freddie Gray, Goldfarb pulls back the curtain on a pioneer institution in crisis.
Medical examiners and the investigators and technicians who support them play vital roles in the justice and public health systems of every American community. During Goldfarb’s time with the Maryland OCME, opioid-related deaths contributed to a significant increase in their workload. Faced with a chronic shortage of qualified experts and inadequate funding, their important and fascinating work has become more challenging than most people could ever imagine.
The public gets a skewed view of the relationship between police and medical examiners from procedural crime dramas, Bruce Goldfarb writes of his work inside one of America’s most storied forensic centers. We aren’t on the same team . . . We aren’t on any team. The medical examiner’s sole duty is to the deceased person. We speak for the dead.
CW – forensic details of autopsies, details of police violence, drug use, details of crimes.
Apparently if I’m promised a “behind the scenes” view of something, then I’m going to want to read it. As this view is of a forensic medical center, and I am also drawn to forensic stuff, of course I was eager to read it. I both liked this book and had a major issue with it.
So, Goldfarb was an EMT/paramedic before becoming a journalist after he moved to Baltimore. It was there he found what seemed to be the perfect job for his combination of skills. A little over ten years ago, he became the assistant to the Chief Medical Examiner at OCME – the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of the state of Maryland. He details the history of medical examination in Baltimore and Maryland, the struggles to find/build a location for the office, and then how since 1939, theirs had become one of if not the top example in the US. With dedicated and innovative staff always on the cutting edge of their profession, OCME was the gold standard to which other medical examiner departments aspired.
Goldfarb’s duties were administrative but working for the Chief put him right in the thick of things. He handled enquiries (some outrageous, some bizarre, some heartbreaking), dealt with requests of the Chief (most turned down due to legalities/time), tried to open the facility a bit to the public (but carefully curated as the main responsibility of the staff was to the preservation of the dignity of the dead), and watched the workload begin, year by year, to overwhelm the staff.
Baltimore has a reputation for violent crime upon which the opioid crisis piled, and then came Covid. Several highly publicized incidents involving police brutality brought protests and riots. The dead needing autopsies increased, budget cuts increased workload further, staff morale plunged, and the department found itself in the terrible situation that many of the exhausted medical examiners had warned officials would occur. And that was before the former Chief testified at the Chauvin trial which poured gasoline on the fire.
It was sad to read the avoidable spiral of the once proud department. Goldfarb is a good writer – though he rambled a bit now and then – and kept things moving, giving a good overview of the department, and not stinting in including details of ways they failed and fell short.
But then he mentioned something that disturbed me. Apparently after ten years, autopsy files are sent to the state archives in the city of Annapolis. Two famous murders occurred in Baltimore – one about 50 years ago and one about 20 years ago. During his tenure at OCME, both were brought back to public attention. Goldfarb said he requested to have both files sent to him – to keep amateur investigators and souvenir hunters from getting them – and both were. He admitted to paging through them and said that conspiracy theorists would love to get their hands on the information he could read. Did he have a job related reason to read them? No, he didn’t. And then he stated that he locked both files in his desk – one for if the case went back to trial and one for safety. WTH? Seemed like the files were safe enough where they were.
So I guess I need to give the book a double grade. It gets a B for the details of the OCME and a D for the author’s weak assed reasoning to request two files and his personal disregard for the privacy of the victims.