LOS ANGELES - It's been a while since folks could poke fun at the Los Angeles County coroner's office. But now, its critics say, the Keystone Coroners are back, as shown by forensic foul-ups in the O.J. Simpson case.
Under grueling cross-examination at Simpson's preliminary hearing, Deputy Medical Examiner Dr. Irwin Golden acknowledged that up to 10 hours passed before a coroner's investigator examined the bodies of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. In addition, her body was never checked for signs of rape.
Golden also conceded he hadn't adequately reviewed whether a 15-inch stiletto similar to one Simpson allegedly bought five weeks before the slayings could have caused the fatal wounds.
Simpson, 47, has been charged with murder in the June 12 stabbing deaths of Nicole Simpson, 35, and Goldman, 25.
Golden acknowledged he would have needed to spend more time looking at the knife to see whether it could have inflicted the wounds.
"You understand a man is sitting in jail, faced with charges of double homicide, do you not?" defense attorney Robert Shapiro asked. "When would you suggest doing these tests?"
"Now?" Golden said.
But experts said the biggest problem was the 10-hour lapse before a coroner's investigator examined the bodies. Witnesses testified they heard a dog barking about 10:15 p.m., suggesting that was when the victims were attacked. The bodies were discovered shortly after midnight.
The sooner the temperature of a corpse is determined, the more accurately a time of death can be fixed by calculating the drop in temperature, said Wayne Hill, an Illinois forensic consultant.
On the stand, Golden could testify only that Nicole Simpson and Goldman had died between 9 p.m. and midnight; he couldn't say who died first.
Coroner's spokesman Scott Carrier defended the department. He said police didn't notify the coroner's office of a double homicide until just before 7 a.m. June 13; didn't request an investigator at the scene until 8:20 a.m.; and didn't let the investigator look at the bodies until 10 a.m. Liver temperatures weren't taken until 10:50 a.m., Golden testified.
"We can't respond to a crime scene until we receive notification from the investigating agency," Carrier said.
Police refused to comment on the delay.
The criticism about the Simpson case is just one more burden on the department, which has recently weathered a 10 percent budget cut but seen no decrease in caseload.
A staff of 27 investigated 12,479 deaths last year, and there were 16 pathologists to perform 6,119 autopsies.
Still, morale has improved since the days of Thomas Noguchi, who earned the nickname "coroner to the stars" for investigations of such celebrities as Marilyn Monroe to John Belushi. Under Noguchi, who ran the office from 1967 until he was fired in 1982, the department came under repeated attack for alleged mismanagement.
In the years that followed, the department was criticized for moving too slowly on autopsies, leaving bodies at crime and accident scenes for hours and, most embarrassingly, bouncing corpses from coroner vans onto freeways.
Noguchi's successor, Ronald Kornblum, resigned under fire in 1990. The current medical examiner, Lakshmanan Sathyavagiswaran, took over after a search in which a leading candidate withdrew after failing the state licensing test three times.