Texas death cases face court challenge

Published: Sep. 8, 2011 at 4:42 PM CDT|Updated: Dec. 15, 2014 at 1:20 AM CST
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LUBBOCK, TX (KCBD) - A legal challenge could unravel the validity of many murder cases in Texas, including some done in the past in Lubbock.  Former Lubbock County Deputy Medical Examiner Paul Schrode faces just such a challenge for the work he did as Chief Medical Examiner in El Paso.  In 2010, Schrode was fired from El Paso amid allegations that he falsified his resume while in Lubbock to get the El Paso Chief's job.

This newest challenge is not an allegation of lying but rather a failure to complete paperwork for public officers in Texas.  Schrode did not execute a written oath of office nor a bribery statement.  The Texas Constitution demands such paperwork for all public office holders.

Therein lies the rub.  Is a Medical Examiner a public office holder?

If so, the lack of such documentation could be used to challenge autopsies done by Schrode both in El Paso and in Lubbock.  Countless criminal cases involving an autopsy could suddenly be subject to tough legal questions.

Medical Examiners in Dallas, Tarrant, and other counties have recently executed written oaths of office and bribery statements.

By contrast, the Harris County Medical Examiner's Office said on Wednesday, "The Chief Medical Examiner serves at the pleasure of Commissioners court.  This is not a constitutional office; therefore, neither Chief Medical Examiner nor his appointed Assistant Medical Examiners are required to take an oath of office."

The man who has instigated some of these challenges statewide, David Fisher, is a document specialist who often works for defense attorneys.

Fisher says, "According to the state Constitution, all state and county elected and appointed officials must execute the bribery statement before taking the oath of office."  He also says, "Any public official who controls any portion of state sovereignty is subject to this requirement and this includes medical examiners."

Fisher cites an Attorney General legal opinion in support of his claims.  He also says, "It could affect 90 percent of the people on death row."

If it really is as big a problem as Fisher says, then it goes way beyond Schrode.  In Lubbock County only one Chief Medical Examiner since 1994 has executed the paperwork; Sridhar Natarajan.

But not even Natarajan is immune to the issue because he only executed the paperwork for his second term of office, from 2009 to the present.  During his time as Medical Examiner from 2003 to 2006, an open records request reveals no statement of oath and no bribery statement.

Such records also do not exist for Doctors Thomas Beaver, Jerry Spencer, and David Hoblit.

"I do not think it impacts Lubbock at all," says Commissioner Bill McCay.

He says Lubbock contracted with Texas Tech for autopsies prior to Natarajan's second term as Medical Examiner and he thinks that makes Lubbock's situation different.

Natarajan (in his first term as M.E.), Beaver, and Spencer were hired on at the TTU HSC and did work for both the school and the University.  Hoblit had contracted on behalf of his own company.

"I did not go to law school and pass the bar," says McCay.  "I can't answer the legal questions.  But I do have confidence in the Civil Division of the D.A.'s office and those contracts that they presented will stand up in court."

CLICK HERE to see Natarajan's statement of oath & bribery statement

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