“If they would have done the proper investigation, this would have gotten bigger. They would have seen that my daughter was murdered,” said Diane Valiante.
Families like the Valiantes crowded Monday’s committee hearing wearing shirts donned with “Justice for Tiffany” across the chest, a statement against what they call a hasty 2015 ruling by the state medical examiner’s system deeming their daughter’s death a suicide despite conflicting evidence. Their story and many others were part of a Star Ledger investigation into the State Medical Examiner’s office and alleged dysfunctional operations, leading to calls for all out reform.
“We haven’t had a chance to grieve,” said Valiante. “It’s been a constant fight for everything.”
Lawmakers grilled the head of the office, Dr. Andrew Falzon, who admitted underfunding and understaffing led to backlogs, unresolved cases, and at one point, more than 100 dead bodies left unclaimed at state morgues.
“The main problem facing our system is the disparity in the standards among the different offices,” said Falzon.
Mainly, he says, because the facilities and tools are woefully outdated. His staff hasn’t received a raise in 10 years. And despite increasing the amount of doctors from three to seven, they’re working with double the caseload because of the recent opioid epidemic.
“Not having heat and having people work in the cold, was something you said earlier. Is that something that happens often?” asked Sen. Sandra Cunningham.
“I used to work in the office as a per diem some four to five years ago. I remember running over to the sink, running my hands under hot water to restart the circulation of my hands, so it’s been an ongoing issue,” said Falzon.
“Do you share any of the blame for the past inequities?” asked Sen. Dick Codey.
“If you look at the history of the medical examiner system, every one of my predecessors has resigned or retired in protest,” replied Falzon.
The office operates under the Division of Criminal Justice in the Attorney General’s Office. Several witnesses testified that prevents the system from working independently.
Historically, the Medical Examiner’s Office does not participate in the budget process, confirmed Vitale. He also said he’s recently been asked about the budget by the Attorney General’s Office, or by someone within the Division of Criminal Justice.
Sen. Bob Singer suggested creating a task force to move forward. Witnesses testified that the Christie administration blocked increased funding or moving the office from a patchwork system to one having a central overarching authority, creating opportunities for more oversight.
Vitale confirmed Falzon was appointed in 2015 and for six full years, there was no official nor acting chief medical examiner for New Jersey.
As the former acting state medical examiner said Monday, in the past, legislators have considered the office as dealing with the dead and therefore unworthy of more resources, when in fact, he said, everything they do is for the living.