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Exception Sought For Medical Examiner

Mayor Wants to Waive Rule on Certification

By Yolanda Woodlee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 1, 2004; Page B01

D.C. Mayor Anthony A. Williams is seeking a temporary change in city law so he can appoint a chief medical examiner who is not a certified forensic pathologist.

Marie Pierre-Louis, the acting chief examiner, has been a deputy in the agency for 18 years but lacks a key city requirement to fill the position: certification in forensic pathology by the American Board of Pathology. Williams (D) wants to amend the law so Pierre-Louis can complete the six-year term of Jonathan L. Arden, the former chief medical examiner. His term ends in 2007.

Marie Pierre-Louis was praised for bringing "a lot of stability" to the office. (Marvin Joseph -- The Washington Post)

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Pierre-Louis took over the office in October 2003 after Arden was forced to resign following allegations of sexual harassment, racial discrimination and dereliction of duty.

Williams said he asked the D.C. Council to change the law because he said it is not easy to find candidates for the job.

"We've had long experience with this," the mayor said. "It's a very difficult-to-fill position."

In a letter to Council Chairman Linda W. Cropp (D), the mayor said changing the law would give him the flexibility to consider candidates who may not have the requisite certification but "who have demonstrated a tremendous breadth of experience, a long record of quality service with the Office of Chief Medical Examiner, and leadership in helping advance the agency's goals."

The District's four-year-old certification requirement is a prerequisite for the medical examiner's office to regain accreditation by the National Association for Medical Examiners. The office lost its accreditation in 1987.

St. Louis Medical Examiner Michael Graham, president of the national association, said accreditation is not required but is expected in major cities. He said he did not know why the District's office is not accredited but acknowledged that, over the years, the agency has had problems in a variety of areas.

"If the chief medical examiner is not a forensic pathologist, that would preclude the ability of the office to be accredited," Graham said. "That's how important it is to us."

Pierre-Louis's résumé indicates that she is licensed, but it does not list board certification in any areas.

"It doesn't mean that someone who is not board-certified can't do good work," Graham said. "If someone is board-certified, I know at least at one point in their career they have had a certain amount of education, and [completed] an approved training program and passed an exam to show a certain level of knowledge."

Pierre-Louis is paid an annual salary of $152,254. She did not respond to several messages left at her office.

D.C. Council member Kathy Patterson (D-Ward 3), who heads the Committee on the Judiciary, which oversees the medical examiner's office, said she was unaware of any opposition to Pierre-Louis's appointment or to the amendment change.

"That office was such a mess for a long period of time. She's brought a lot of stability," Patterson said. "She has done such a good job so far, I think the record speaks for itself."

Pierre-Louis, who was one of the deputies who complained about Arden's management skills, told Patterson's committee last week that she has performed more than 4,500 autopsies and testified in more than 450 court cases.

She completed a fellowship in forensic pathology at the District's chief medical examiner's office in 1986 and is recognized by her colleagues as an expert in that area. But she is no longer eligible for certification, according to a report prepared by Patterson's committee.

The office, which is responsible for investigating violent, unexplained and unexpected deaths in the city, has a $6 million budget and 64 employees, 16 more than before Pierre-Louis was appointed.

She told the committee that the backlog of autopsy reports has been reduced since she took charge. The remaining backlog of 1,108 autopsy reports should be eliminated by late 2005, she said.

Staff writer Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.

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