Witness to the Mysteries of Death and the Gift of Life

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 31, 2007

Ask Virginia's chief medical examiner, Marcella Fierro, to recall her most interesting cases and she falls quiet.

She doesn't think to talk about the time she determined that a stranger, not an acquaintance, killed a young woman, her finding based on just a few clues: two chicken-dinner boxes and the woman's bulging belly, indicating that she had eaten everything alone.

She doesn't immediately talk about the Virginia Tech massacre and how many of the victims had to be identified by matching their fingerprints with those on "their cosmetics, their papers, their checkbooks, their bedside clock -- things they would have handled."

She won't tell you, until you ask, about the literal skeleton closet she keeps of all the bones of all the people she could never identify and that haunt her to this day.

"I just don't remember cases unless someone jogs my mind," said Fierro, sitting in her Richmond office one day recently. "I guess it's just part of being able to compartmentalize. You couldn't survive this work if you weren't able to do that."

For more than 30 years, Fierro has survived the business of investigating suspicious, sudden and violent deaths across Virginia, which has the second-largest state medical examiner system in the nation. During that time, she has witnessed more women breaking into her field, served as the intellectual inspiration for the lead character, Kay Scarpetta, in some of Patricia Cornwell's best-selling crime novels and most notably, perhaps, handled thousands of cases, chronicling Virginians' lives through their deaths.

When Fierro, 66, retires today, leaving behind her roughly $200,000 salary and a staff of about 70 spread out in four regional offices across the state, she will depart with memories crowded with the types of images most people will never encounter.

"This work never leaves you, really. That's, I guess, the curse of it," Fierro said. "The blessing is you know every day when you go home that you have done something worthwhile. Not only for your patients, who can no longer speak for themselves, but for those who can have no peace until they know. Families are tormented until they know what happened.

"They always ask me two questions," she said. First, what happened? Then, did the person suffer?

Before Fierro accepted the job in the medical examiner's office in the mid-1970s, she had one question for the chief at the time: "Am I going to be a pioneer?" she asked. "Because I'm sick of it."

Fierro was one of only four women in her medical school class and the ninth woman certified in forensic pathology by the American Board of Pathology at the time. When she joined the National Association of Medical Examiners in 1974, she was one of only three female members, according to the association.

Sandra Conradi, who was among that handful, remembered how she and Fierro sought each other out among the crowd of men at the conventions and began having lunch together.

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