The Medical Examiner's Commission in Florida and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement began an investigation yesterday of the state medical examiner's decision to provide the brains of executed prisoners to a University of Florida researcher studying the criminal mind, state officials said yesterday.
Permission for the research was not obtained from the Death Row prisoners or from their families, according to Lori Naslund, an investigator in the state medical examiner's office.
State law in Florida requires authorization from the individual or his family for any organ donation, according to State's Attorney Eugene Whitworth.
"I'm totally shocked," Whitworth said.
"I'm totally unfamiliar with any legal authority that would allow this to be done. There's going to be a lot of checking into this by my office."
Later in the day, however, Whitworth said he had decided to permit the commission and Department of Law Enforcement -- the state police in Florida -- to conduct an initial investigation. "They'll give me the results and I'll review them for criminal charges," Whitworth said.
Dr. Wallace Graves, head of the Medical Examiner's Commission, said the commission, a regulatory body of state and local officials that oversees the examiner's office, wants "to see if there was a violation of law or violation of the rules and regulations of the commission."
The researcher, Christiana Leonard, approached Medical Examiner William Hamilton several years ago and asked him for the brains of electrocuted state prisoners, Naslund said, adding that Hamilton provided them.
Leonard could not be reached for comment. But in a prepared statement, Hamilton explained that Leonard was trying to determine whether a relationship existed between head trauma suffered during childhood and "aberrations of behavior, particularly aggressive behavior."
Hamilton cited a state law that he said permits organ research "related to the cause of death" without permission.
Because the cause of electrocution was the prisoner's criminal behavior, he suggested, the research was "distantly related to the cause of death."
Whitworth said he was not convinced by Hamilton's explanation. "I'd say that's stretching it," he said, adding that although state law permits the medical examiner to examine organs to determine the cause of death, "this appears to be examining organs that led to behavior that causes us to put him to death."
David Rothman, director of the Center for the Study of Society and Medicine at Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons, said the law permitting the medical examiner and researchers to examine organs related to the cause of death "was written to cover physiological and not social conditions."
"When you start moving from physiological categories to social categories . . . you have leaped a barrier which is extraordinary," Rothman said.