Behind a picture window, the nude body of a middle-aged man lay face up on a stainless steel table. Medical experts suspected he died of heart failure, or an allergic reaction, but they needed to find out for sure.
Roger Mitchell Jr., the District’s chief medical examiner, stepped into the room and put on a white apron and plastic gloves. From a yellow toolbox, he pulled out an 18-inch blade and began his painstaking work.
“I speak for those who can’t speak anymore,” he told a forensics class viewing the autopsy from the other side of the glass. “It’s our job to turn victims into victors.”
At 42, Mitchell, a recently licensed Baptist minister, is one of the youngest chief medical examiners overseeing a major-city morgue. His first priority is to give answers to families, and many times to police, about how people die in the nation’s capital. But he also is trying to use the lessons of the dead to help the living.
After noticing an increase in the number of infants accidentally smothered while asleep, Mitchell recently hired an outreach worker focused on safety to connect with community groups serving new parents. He has mandated more-detailed tracking of drug overdoses, with the aim of identifying whether a particular neighborhood has a problem. And he is on a national board that is seeking to improve the tracking and examinations of deaths in police custody.
The D.C. Medical Examiner’s Office has a staff of 80 and a budget of more than $10.5 million. It performs some 1,100 examinations, including about 730 full autopsies, each year on people whose deaths are unexpected. About half the deaths the office handled in one recent year were because of natural causes. Mitchell said they also see slayings, drug overdoses, and deaths from falls and other accidents.
Since he came on board in 2014, Mitchell has hired medical examiners from other cities to join the staff, has ordered that autopsies be completed in 90 days and has ensured that all staff met national board certification. In March, for the first time in the District’s history, the office obtained full accreditation, making it one of only about 70 offices across the nation to reach such status, according to the National Association of Medical Examiners.
City leaders credit Mitchell with taking an agency that has gone through an overhaul after years of trouble and steering it toward becoming a national model. A little over a decade ago, the office was under national scrutiny for mismanagement and had a backlog of more than 1,000 unfinished autopsy reports.
“He has taken that office to the next level and built up a level of respect,” said D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson (D).
After a recent 10-hour workday in the Department of Forensic Sciences building in Southwest Washington, Mitchell headed to the D.C. jail. Once a month, he meets with about two dozen teenagers who have been charged as adults in violent crimes including armed robbery, rape and murder.
He hopes he can deter even one of them from future violence, save even one life. Each visit, Mitchell talks to the youth and assigns a book to read. This time, it was Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man.”
“Research shows that a caring adult is one of the best predictors of positive outcomes in youth, regardless of race and gender,” Mitchell said. “I told them I care and I’m going to do their bid with them,” he said, referring to the teens’ sentences.
Fred Rogers, program manager for D.C. jail’s juvenile services, said that he is not sure how broad the impact will be but that Mitchell has become a role model. “He makes them feel good about being young black men,” Rogers said.
Mitchell isn’t just focusing on trying to reduce homicides, which last year numbered 162 in the city, a 54 percent increase over the year before. He wants to broaden the understanding into the causes of all unexpected deaths in the city and use that information to support prevention efforts.
One area that has concerned Mitchell is an increase in deaths from drug overdoses, either accidental or suicide. Last year, his office handled 114 deaths of people who died from overdoses from street drugs such as heroin or prescription drugs such as oxycodone, acetaminophen or fentanyl. That was a 37 percent increase in overdose deaths from 2014.
Previously, the medical examiner’s office counted overdose deaths annually. Mitchell has ordered that they be tracked within 90 to 120 days. The objective is to more quickly identify whether a neighborhood is dealing with a specific drug that is contributing to overdoses and to team with the District’s Department of Health to attack the problem.
And last July, when D.C. police expressed concern about the growing use of synthetic drugs, Mitchell teamed with the Department of Health and D.C. hospitals to collect blood and urine samples of all patients suspected of illegal drug use. Those samples are rushed to Mitchell’s lab for testing. “Synthetic drugs create an agitated state that is linked to violence among some users,” he said. So far, more than 400 samples have been analyzed and the results are shared with local authorities.
Mitchell’s investigations also take a national scope. In addition to his work on deaths in police custody, he is the chairman of the National Medical Association’s violence prevention committee, which examines violence as a public health issue.
Juggling his many duties, he says, is what fuels him. The husband and father of three often finds himself checking his email while attending his son’s baseball games. His wife, Angelique, is an acting executive director of a local nonprofit group.
“I carve out time for the things I have to do when I have to do them,” he said. “A full plate eventually gets eaten,” he said. “But a plate that’s not full gets procrastinated.”
After his parents divorced when he was child, Mitchell grew up with his mother in South Orange, N.J. He was fascinated with science and wanted to be like his grandfather, one of the first black physicians in Atlantic City in the 1950s.
Grade school was challenging for Mitchell. He often struggled with reading and writing, problems he now attributes to a “slight dyslexia issue.” The challenge, he said, surfaces only in public, when he has to read or even write in front of an audience. During public speaking engagements, such as when he has to speak at City Council hearings, he often memorizes his remarks.
Mitchell arrived at Howard University as a pre-med major, but it wasn’t until he watched the O.J. Simpson murder trial on TV in 1995 that he determined his specialty. Mitchell was captivated by the DNA testimony from the forensic pathologist. “I got bit with the forensic bug,” he said.
After graduation, he worked as a forensic biologist for the FBI’s DNA unit before heading to New Jersey Medical School, now part of Rutgers University, in Newark.
Mitchell went on to work as a medical examiner in Houston, New York and Newark. He rose to become the regional medical examiner of New Jersey before coming to the District.
He’s not a gray-haired chief medical examiner like you would see on TV. Prada glasses shape his face, and his tailored suits are coordinated with his multi-
colored socks. Both arms are covered in tattoos. One of his tattoos is of a skull surrounded by five stars that represent the five manners of death in forensic pathology: homicide, suicide, accidental, natural and undetermined.
Mitchell doesn’t limit his autopsies to sterile exam rooms if he thinks quicker action can help the police. One May afternoon last year, he sped to a Northwest Washington home where authorities fighting a fire made a grim discovery. There, he climbed into the back of an ambulance and performed preliminary autopsies on the badly burned bodies of Savvas Savopoulos and his wife, Amy. The couple, along with their 10-year-old son and the family’s housekeeper, had been beaten and stabbed before the home was torched.
Searching for causes of death or taking fingernail clippings or scrapings at the scene of the crime may help detectives, Mitchell said. A Maryland man was eventually arrested and is awaiting trial in the slayings.
David Gorman, deputy chief of the homicide section for the District’s U.S. attorney’s office, said Mitchell’s overhaul of the office has been “invaluable” in prosecuting homicide cases. “The importance of a good and well-run medical examiner office is essential to our prosecutions,” Gorman said.
Back in the autopsy room, Mitchell removed the man’s heart, liver and intestines, and he examined each organ. He then took samples of blood and other fluids for testing.
While some blood spilled from the body, Mitchell’s white lab coat remained spotless. There should be no reason to have the person’s blood on his clothes, he told his assistants, because it is disrespectful to the dead. “Leave their blood with them,” he said. I’m a surgeon. There is no reason to be covered in blood if you know what you are doing.”
Mitchell cut pieces of each organ and photographed them, then put each organ in a plastic bag. When he finished, he put the bag into the man’s chest cavity. One of his assistants used surgical wire to close the chest. After the exam, Mitchell believed the man, who also was overweight, died of a heart attack. But a final ruling, a final answer for the man’s family, would await various test results.
The work can be taxing, witnessing death each day. But Mitchell said he has grown spiritually.
“My faith has become a place of refuge for me,” he said. “These cases are hard. But it makes you know how important it is to serve families. And that is what we do.”