New questions raised in Pierce County Medical Examiner's handling of Puyallup woman's death

New questions raised in Pierce County Medical Examiner's handling of Puyallup woman's death

PUYALLUP, Wash. — When Laura Black was told her daughter Jessica had committed suicide, she didn't believe it. “Hell no, it couldn’t be,” Black said in an interview with KIRO 7.

The 25-year-old's body was found inside her Puyallup home on November 7, 2017. Her throat had been slit leaving a fatal wound 6 inches across and 4 inches deep. Pierce County Medical Examiner Dr. Thomas Clark ruled the manner of death a suicide. But a recent review by an independent forensic pathologist raises questions about Clark's methods in reaching that conclusion, including not performing an autopsy.

“There are some issues regarding the scene as well as the body itself that I think could have been more thoroughly addressed with an autopsy,” said Dr. Thomas Andrew.

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Andrew, who runs White Mountain Forensic Consulting Services in Concord, New Hampshire was hired to review the case by an attorney representing Black’s family. He is a member of the Academy of Forensic Sciences and the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) which sets standards for death investigations conducted by medical examiners.

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After reviewing police reports and the death investigation Andrew told KIRO 7,  given the circumstances, Black's death would be better understood had Clark conducted an autopsy.

“I certainly got the sense from law enforcement documents that this one was deemed to be a fairly suspicious death,” Andrew said. “And any time you enlist the major crime unit in a jurisdiction that should point to an autopsy.”

Clark's own staff have criticized him for failing to perform autopsies even when circumstances call for one. In a letter signed by eight employees with the Medical Examiner’s Office and sent to Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier those staff members accuse Clark of, “failing to follow National Association of Medical Examiner standards”, “failure to do autopsies”, and that Clark, “cultivates an office culture where legitimate complaints are not addressed.”

KIRO 7 has reported on two cases where Clark's methods and conclusions are being questioned by both families and law enforcement. They include the 2017 death of Stephen Gale that Clark called undetermined despite an alleged admission by suspect Tyler Thiel that he beat and stomped Gale in the head at a July 4th party in Steilacoom. Thiel was arrested and charged with second-degree murder, but charges were dismissed based on Clark's finding. Steilacoom police have asked Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Mary Robnett to have another look at the case, which she has agreed to do.

“We were disappointed with the finding from the Medical Examiner’s Office,” said Steilacoom police Chief T.J. Rodriguez. “We respect the decision that prosecutors made at the time but we’d like a review.”

Questions have also been raised about the July 6, 2017 death of 16-year-old Jordon Gish, who died after falling from a bridge on Meridian street in Puyallup. Clark ruled that death a suicide despite objections from Gish's family. His father Michael Gish claims his son was out late goofing around with a friend when he fell from the bridge accidentally.

“To see the death certificate, the fact of the matter that I’ve already lost my son and then to see that,” said Gish. “It wasn’t suicide. It shouldn’t be there.”

Puyallup police also question Clark's conclusion in Jordon Gish’s death.

“This is a case where we differed with the Medical Examiner,” said Puyallup police Capt. Ryan Portmann. “We believed it was more likely an accidental death.”

Portmann said in the case of Jessica Black police agree with Clark.

“We actually concur with the finding there,” Portmann said, but added that an autopsy of her body would provide investigators with more answers. “We’d always like to have an autopsy, certainly. That’s just more information, more tools on our tool belt to use to help us determine if our finding is correct.”

NAME standards don’t call for autopsy in all death investigations, and Dr. Andrew told KIRO 7 it may not have changed Jessica Black’s manner of death. But it would have provided more evidence the finding of suicide was correct.

“My position is not that an autopsy would have changed cause or manner of death,” said Andrew. “But this is akin to the mathematics test that you take in the seventh grade that says, show your work. You may reach the correct answer but your path to getting there may be flawed.”

Clark faces an investigation by the Washington State Medical Commission after two former and one current Associate Medical Examiner filed complaints. He also faces a whistleblower complaint filed by Associate Medical Examiner Dr. Megan Quinn who was place on administrative leave shortly after filing the complaint. Quinn was accused of insubordination and an ethics violation, but so far no details of those allegations have been released to her or made public.