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The odor of formaldehyde stings the air in the second floor laboratory of Honolulu’s Department of the Medical Examiner Iwilei facility. The scent clings to the throats of all who enter the room where technicians slice tissue in preparation for biopsies.
A fume hood is supposed to suck out the carcinogenic fumes, but the hood isn’t working properly.
“That means we get exposed to it more,” said Michele Rubio, one of two lab technicians at the facility.
If staff members hover above samples too long they become light-headed or their eyes start to burn, she said. They wear masks but not full respirators.
Occasionally a bird falls through the fume hood.
Rubio likes to keep a bottle of lotion on her desk, but the rats that infest the building keep chewing through the plastic.
Built in 1986, the crumbling facility has had no major repairs. Now, there are real concerns that the condition of the facility is threatening the health of workers and visitors to the building. Criminal cases also could be at risk if evidence collected by the medical examiner becomes tainted due to contamination from leaks or unsafe handling.
The condition of the building shocked Honolulu Councilman Joey Manahan, who represents Kalihi and Iwilei.
“I mean it’s very run down compared to even other city facilities,” Manahan said. “It’s really that bad.”
An average of three bodies arrive at Honolulu’s only morgue every day, about one for every eight deaths on Oahu. By law, the department must investigate any death where the cause is suspected to be suicide, homicide, an accident or unexplained.
Lack of freezer space to store bodies and shoddy laboratory conditions strain the department’s staff. Some people fear the conditions could compromise lab results used to determine cause of death.
“There is a potential that it could contaminate samples, that kind of thing, if outside air is coming in or if they’ve got leaks. They shouldn’t have to deal with that kind of stuff.” — Public Defender Jack Tonaki
Of 1,115 deaths the office investigated last year, just 37 were determined to be homicides, though not necessarily murders. Most were classified as natural or accidental, including drug overdoses, drownings or car accidents.
For the homicide cases, the medical examiner’s office plays a critical role as the lead investigator, gathering evidence later used in court.
“The integrity of that particular workspace is important,” said State Public Defender Jack Tonaki. “There is a potential that it could contaminate samples, that kind of thing, if outside air is coming in or if they’ve got leaks. They shouldn’t have to deal with that kind of stuff.”
Both prosecution and defense attorneys use the information that comes from the medical examiner’s office.
“That’s how you get justice in a court system that relies to a large degree on scientific evidence,” said former public defender Edward Harada. “You can’t cut corners in that agency.”
A tour of the facility led Manahan to put a request for $5 million in the city’s capital improvement budget for fiscal year 2019.
But Honolulu’s chief medical examiner, Dr. Christopher Happy, said fixing the facility might cost tens of millions of dollars. With the city budget already squeezed by administrative costs associated with the rail project, finding money for the morgue will become increasingly difficult.
Manahan believes the department may need a new building, either at its current location or elsewhere.
The morgue is next to the Institute for Human Services, the state’s largest homeless shelter. When relatives of the deceased come to identify or claim a body, they sometimes have to walk around a homeless person sleeping near the entrance, Manahan said.
“We serve the underclass at the medical examiner’s office mostly,” Happy told the City Council Budget Committee at a meeting in April. “We’re a small department and we provide a service that’s very specialized, but when a family or the citizens of this island needs it, it’s probably the most important service that they will ever access.”
In a storage room where glass jars contain preserved human body parts in formaldehyde, tubes run down from the ceiling, redirecting rainwater that leaks through the roof into buckets.
Black mold grows on ceiling tiles throughout the Iwilei facility.
The leaky roof causes ceiling tiles to break apart in a storage room full of paper records that date to the 1980s. They haven’t been digitized, so their loss would be permanent.
The leaks affect most of the building, including the autopsy room.
“Slips, trips and things like that are going to be very dangerous especially in a morgue,” said Charlotte Carter, an investigator at the morgue who gave Civil Beat a tour of the facility Friday. If “somebody’s carrying a glass jar filled with formaldehyde and specimens and slipped, that would be nightmarish.”
One employee described the facility’s air conditioning system as temperamental. The motor that runs the system blew out Wednesday. In the autopsy room where pathologists wear layers of protective gear, the heat threatened to become dizzying.
Repairmen from the Department of Facility Maintenance are at the morgue every week, but “once one thing’s fixed, something else breaks,” Carter said.
All this leads Happy to believe that Manahan’s $5 million proposal won’t cut it.
Those funds would likely be spent on temporary fixes to the ceiling and on assessing how much it would cost to upgrade the entire building, Happy said.
If the city’s Department of Design and Construction finds the renovations costs $20 million to $30 million, Happy said the city should consider building an entirely new facility because that would cost about the same amount.
The design and construction department is not currently working on an assessment of the entire facility, but has looked into repairing the air conditioner and roofing.
Ken Lawson of the Hawaii Innocence Project fears if blood and tissue samples are tainted in the lab, it could lead to wrongful convictions, which his organization is dedicated to reversing.
“People watch ‘CSI’ and stuff like that and think these labs get it right,” Lawson said, but a juror isn’t going to see if lab conditions are substandard. “What they’re going to see is here’s a forensic scientist, right, this is science, this is not theory, and science is exact therefore … the person’s guilty.”
Valid forensic science starts with gathering evidence correctly and analyzing the evidence in a lab with standardized conditions, Lawson said.
As the investigator for any unattended death that occurs in Honolulu, the department is responsible for collecting blood for toxicology reports, which determine levels of substances in a dead body, according to Tonaki, the State Public Defender.
The department also finds details in murder cases, including determining from which angle a victim was shot or stabbed.
“It’s a vitally important office for these situations,” Tonaki said.
Lawyers at the Hawaii Innocence Project have grown more concerned.
“We’ve become accustomed to not trusting anything that comes out of those labs,” Lawson said, “because we don’t believe that they’re reliable.”
Happy said the lab conditions don’t compromise specimens, but the building leaks concern some staffers.
“With sensitive equipment and sensitive materials, you know blood, blood samples, things that need to dry, dehydrate, things like that, if there’s water in that, that could potentially ruin samples,” Carter said.
For Happy, the biggest issue the morgue faces is lack of storage space.
The morgue can hold up to 60 bodies. After lab work is completed on a corpse, the department typically must wait until next of kin or a funeral establishments comes to collect the deceased.
The department spent more than $100,000 last year to transport bodies to a nearby storage facility that charges a daily fee for each body.
Happy has introduced Bill 104, which would charge mortuaries and others responsible for the collection of bodies $50 per day for storage. The measure is generating animosity between the department and the Hawaii Funeral and Cemetery Association.
In testimony against the bill, HFCA President Jay Morford described an interaction that preceded a February Budget Committee meeting when John Burns, an office manager at the department, told HFCA members, “‘We will start dropping the bodies off at your establishments. We can do that!’”
The HFCA testimony continued: “We then stated, ‘that sounds like a threat,’ and he stated ‘that is not a threat, it is a promise. I don’t need a “BILL” to do that.’”
Happy said Burns was “talked to.”
Bill 104 has stalled since February. Happy said even if it is passed, it might not relieve the department’s space issues.
“It’s meant to be a deterrent for them but they might just choose to pay the fee and continue and we’ll continue to have the storage problem,” Happy said at an April Budget Committee meeting.
New facility or not, Happy wants to buy enough freezers to store 120 bodies in anticipation of population growth. He said the additional freezers could fit into the current building.
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