Inside the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner’s Office

In a grim year for homicides, they probe what violence leaves behind
The sharp rise in homicides in Charlotte last year put added strain on Dr. Thomas Owens, who’s directed the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner’s Office since 2014, and his staff.
ANDY McMILLAN

Tucked off a cul-de-sac in an industrial park off Brookshire Boulevard, the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner’s Office is easy enough to find if you know where you’re going but inconspicuous enough to miss if you’d rather not think about what’s done there. It’s where professional pathologists investigate a key piece of evidence in any suspicious or unexplained death—the body.

“Sometimes it’s a little depressing when you think about all these young and middle-aged people who die for no good reason,” says Dr. Thomas Owens, the county’s chief forensic pathologist and the office’s director. “But you’ve got to remember you’re dealing with a biased population. You have to think about the millions of people who didn’t die.”

It’s the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, and investigators have just confirmed Charlotte’s 99th and 100th homicide victims of the year: a 51-year-old shot at the east Charlotte video arcade where he worked, and the 19-year-old son of a Cabarrus County sheriff’s deputy shot at a University City shopping center. That number is nearly double the total for 2018, when police registered 57 homicides, and marks the first time since 1993 the number has hit 100. (The total for 2019 ultimately rises to 108.) That count doesn’t include justifiable homicides or those that happened in other parts of Mecklenburg County, as well as Anson, Cabarrus, Cleveland, Gaston, and Union counties, which the Mecklenburg office also handles.

To date in 2019, homicides make up about 30 percent of the autopsies the four pathologists here perform. That’s up from about 20 percent most years, Owens says. Overdoses, accidents, and suicides make up most of the rest. While the total number of deaths is relatively stable, homicide investigations and autopsies are more complex and mean longer hours for pathologists, the office’s 10 investigators, and the rest of the staff. 

“They’re spending a lot more time out of the office at those scenes,” Owens says. “You can show up at a scene for an overdose or maybe a fall, and those can be worked through pretty quickly. When you’re talking about homicides, there’s a lot more going on at the scene. And every extra bullet can add another 30 to 45 minutes to the autopsy.”

Still, Owens says, there’s no such thing as a routine autopsy. Pathologists start by looking for one of three causes of death: disease, trauma, or drugs. From there, the trail can get tricky. “It can start off as an overdose because it looks like an overdose. Maybe they were shooting up or drinking, but somebody beat the heck out of them,” he says. “Those things do happen, so you never want to fly through an autopsy.”

And while the ME’s office is independent of the district attorney and police and sheriff’s departments, evidence discovered on the autopsy table can reveal what criminal investigators can’t—like the pattern of gunpowder residue Owens found on a man police thought had committed suicide.

“A guy had a typed suicide note, and he was shot in the face,” he says. “However, he had gunpowder soot on his face, which means the gun had to be a foot or more away when it was fired. When I looked at it, he had it on his hands, too. It wasn’t consistent with him holding a gun. What it was consistent with was somebody reaching out as somebody fired the shot. When the police presented the spouse with that information, she admitted that she shot him and typed the note.

“I’m not trying to prosecute anyone, and I’m not trying to get anyone off on charges. My job is to present the evidence as neutrally as possible. Does it fit with the multiple stories? … The body doesn’t lie. People do.”

Charlotte’s 2019 murder spike is only the latest source of strain for Owens and his staff. The office can keep unclaimed bodies for as long as 30 days; an uptick in fentanyl overdoses in 2014 and 2015, followed by a rise in opioid overdoses in 2017 and 2018, meant the morgue cooler was stretched to capacity.  “We were struggling to get bodies in and out of here,” he says. While the overdose rate has stabilized since 2018, population growth in the fast-growing Charlotte area highlights the need for more space. The county plans to increase the morgue cooler capacity from around 70 bodies to close to 140 by the end of 2021.

Compiling grim statistics on body storage is one part of the job. But serving those the dead have left behind is a more immediate duty, Owens says. He and his staff spend a lot of time making sure death certificates are filed quickly and contacting insurance companies to ensure grieving family members can afford funerals. 

“It’s a medical world. We’re doctors; we have patients. They just happen to be dead,” he says. “And those dead people are connected to living people who want to know what’s going on. They need some answers.”

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