Detectives Dan and Dave have long said that victims and their families are at the mercy of the quality of detective assigned to their case. It turns out that detectives and other law enforcement officials will sometimes find themselves beholden to someone else’s work: that of the medical examiner. What a medical examiner finds at a crime scene can make or break a case. So what does it take to do that job well? And what could MEs learn from a veteran in the field? Today, our twin detectives talk with Dr. Mark Super, who has spent decades as a medical examiner in California, about a typical day on the job, his most memorable cases, and what lessons he wants to impart from his storied career.Read Transcript
Dan: [00:00:04] In police stations across the country, officers start their shifts in The Briefing Room.
Dave: [00:00:10] It’s a place where law enforcement can speak openly and candidly about safety, training, policy, crime trends, and more.
Dan: [00:00:17] We think it’s time to invite you in.
Dave: [00:00:19] So, pull up a chair.
Dan and Dave: [00:00:21] Welcome to The Briefing Room.[Briefing Room theme playing]
Dan: [00:00:36] Today, you’re going to hear about a day in the life of a medical examiner. Medical examiners are a key link in the chain of investigators when someone dies. They’re the ones who determine the cause and manner of death. So, we asked Dr. Mark Super, a highly skilled veteran who worked mostly in Central and Northern California, to join us. You’re going to hear how he became a forensic pathologist, because really, how does someone end up in that job, about what it means to go above and beyond as a medical examiner, and he’ll tell us a little bit about what he wishes the people he works with, police, ER doctors, nurses, knew about his job to make autopsies easier. And we’ll ask him about some of his most interesting cases as well. Without further ado, Dr. Super.
Mark: [00:01:22] Thank you.
Dave: [00:01:24] Over the years, we’ve had a lot of guests on our two different podcasts that we have, we’ve never had a forensic pathologist as far as I can remember, and we thought it would be helpful to give our listeners a little bit of insight into what the medical examiner provides as far as being a stakeholder in the greater criminal justice community and beyond. Before we get into that, I was hoping we could just have you, Dr. Super, give us a little bit of a bio on your jurisdiction, the population you serve, and what typical workday or work week looks like for your office.
Mark: [00:02:00] Okay. I practice in California, which is predominantly a sheriff coroner state. Death is investigated on a county level in California. There’re 58 counties and the vast majority of them are sheriff coroner jurisdictions.
Dan: [00:02:16] My understanding is a sheriff coroner county, you have the elected sheriff who’s elected by the people, he also serves as a county coroner. He then appoints a chief deputy coroner, in this case, it would be someone like you who goes in and does death investigations. Is that correct?
Mark: [00:02:33] Yes. I practice full time in Merced County. We have a sheriff. I also have a private practice, and I go all over Northern California doing work for other coroners and private work as well.
Dave: [00:02:45] Okay. And is that in a consulting capacity where you get called in to give another opinion on a case?
Mark: [00:02:52] No, I don’t do that as much. Mostly, they need somebody to do autopsies, [Dave laughs] because there’re very few of us out here. Sometimes, people are gone, they’re on vacation, they need help. And so, I’ll go up and do cases, especially in some of the far-flung low population counties like Humboldt County, which I’d worked for over 20 years. I did all of their homicides.
Dave: [00:03:16] Oh, small world. My brother and I have spent quite a bit of time playing baseball in Eureka, which is in Humboldt County.
Mark: [00:03:23] Oh, well, [Dave laughs] I have some great stories about Eureka. [laughs]
Dave: [00:03:27] Very excited to hear about Eureka stories. First, let’s give some context to what a medical examiner does. When a dead body ends up in your office, what do you do? What scenarios require your participation and expertise? Take us through a day in the life of Dr. Mark Super.
Mark: [00:03:48] Well, just like everybody is born, you have to have a birth certificate. So, when you die, you have to have a death certificate, and that’s what the coroner’s main job is to do. Most people die of some kind of natural death, over 60% of people. And most of those people have a doctor, people know that they’re dying or their death is not unexpected. But then there’re those cases where people die suddenly or they die of some means that’s not natural. So, the coroner must investigate it.
[00:04:19] So, let’s say overnight somebody dies, or two or three people die, and they could transport it to our office. Then we would look at them. First of all, we have to make sure we identify them. That could be a big problem, if you [Dave laughs] misidentify somebody. That could get you in the papers and things that go bad in a hurry.
Dave: [00:04:37] Right.
Mark: [00:04:38] And that’s fingerprints. Most people will do fingerprints right off the bat. As you know, there’re large databases that we can automatically look up who somebody is, which is a big help. Then we decide, are we going to just do an external examination, or are we going to autopsy this individual? Sometimes, it’s an older person. It’s obvious and natural, but they don’t have a doctor. Some people are really smart. They don’t go to doctors. [Dave laughs] They don’t believe in doctors, but they still have to have a death certificate. Then we’ll go ahead and do an autopsy. When you get done, hopefully, we’ll have a cause of death.
[00:05:14] Nowadays, with this opioid crisis and the fentanyl deaths are so high, most of our autopsies are now– We do the autopsies and they end up as pending cause of death, because they’re waiting for results to come out. That takes many weeks usually. Then we have to decide on the manner of deaths. So, a lot of people don’t realize that it’s not just the cause of death, but it’s the manner of death that goes on to the death certificate. Was it a homicide? That means death at the hands of another person. Is it a suicide? Death at their own hands. Is it an accident? Was it some unforeseen event that resulted in their death or is it a small percent of the cases we just don’t know what it is?
[00:05:54] Sometimes, they’re so decomposed or they’re even skeletonized, we may not know how this individual died. But then our day is mixed up with other things like court appearances. We do have to testify in court and so that sometimes takes up a large part of our day. Hopefully, forensic pathologists are going to scenes. I’ve always made it my point to go to homicide scenes, if possible. If the body is at the scene, hasn’t been transported to a hospital or something, I respond and I go and I look at the body at the scene. To me, that’s where the autopsy starts. So, that’s how my day goes.
Dave: [00:06:29] As a former detective, I would have really enjoyed having our medical examiner out at the scene. Our medical examiner in our jurisdiction where Dan and I worked, very, very good. He had his deputies that went out and made on scene determinations and those types of things. But you’re right. The crime scene and the autopsy would definitely start for you seeing the circumstances and the land out where the body’s found, correct?
Mark: [00:06:53] Yes. I’m answering a lot of questions in my own head that I don’t have to ask you. [Dave laughs] Like, what’s nearby? What position is the person in? You’re giving me a status on what happened. So, questions about how long do I think the person’s been dead? Sometimes, I can give the police a good idea or based on what the police tell me and based on what I find at the exam at this scene, I can say, “Well, that’s pretty consistent with what you know,” or “It’s not inconsistent.” “This person’s been dead longer,” or “This person hasn’t been dead that long.” So, sometimes, I can say those kind of things at the scene and things that are moving along.
Dave: [00:07:30] Okay.
Mark: [00:07:31] Nowadays, at 70 years old, I go to the homicide scenes, and I’m the most experienced person there by far. So, I can sometimes be of help. It hasn’t been that uncommon where I’ll go, “This isn’t even a homicide.”
Dave: [00:07:43] Interesting.
Dan: [00:07:44] Dr. Super, I’d like to go back just a little bit into your personal history. You’re from Bismarck, North Dakota, and then went into the navy. I think that when you’re not around an ocean growing up, I think going into the navy might be an interesting choice. Can you give us a little bit of your background growing up and your decision to join the navy?
Mark: [00:08:05] I went to the University of North Dakota. I grew up in Bismarck, as you said. I graduated in physical therapy. So, I became a physical therapist. That’s what I was doing. I went back to Bismarck, and I was practicing, and I enjoyed working with the elderly. I love talking to old people, and hearing their stories, and helping them get better. When I decided to go back to medical school, I was accepted to the University of North Dakota. My intention was to become a geriatrist. It wasn’t until I was a fourth-year medical student, I was allowed to do an autopsy. I’d watched one and I got to do one. This is 1979. I did my first autopsy and I said, “Oh, this is great. I really like this.” So, I became a pathologist.
[00:08:54] Well, not having a lot of money, I was fortunate enough to get a navy scholarship. Even though I’m in North Dakota, the navy, they gave two of us in my class scholarships. So, when I graduated, I went out to San Diego to start my residency. I didn’t know anything about forensic pathology, nothing. I just liked doing autopsies pathology. Well, my second year, the navy sent a forensic pathologist to take over the morgue at Naval Hospital San Diego, which is a large military hospital, one of the largest in the world. I’m talking to him and he says, he’s a forensic pathologist. I thought, what is that? I didn’t even know. I come from Bismarck. How many homicides are there in Bismarck in a century?
Dave: [00:09:46] Right.
Mark: [00:09:47] So he says, “Well, you do autopsies on people that have been murdered and then you work with police, and then you testify about how the person died under these homicide circumstances.” And I went, “Really? Really?” You get to do autopsies, which I like, and you get to work with the cops and figure out why people were killed. And I said, “Where do I sign up for that?”
Dave: [00:10:09] Right. Do you remember the moment you put the scalpel in for the first time?
Mark: [00:10:14] Oh, yes.
Dave: [00:10:15] Was there hesitancy before that, or was it just straight excitement, “I can’t wait to get in and see what I find”?
Mark: [00:10:21] It was excitement. I’d watched a couple and I just felt like this was where I wanted to be. It just felt so natural that this is where my brain works. I was really thinking about medicine. To me, autopsies was medicine. So, I was thinking, I’m going to help other doctors, I’m going to help families figure out why somebody died. That was my thinking when I went into pathology in the first place.
Dave: [00:10:48] And just ballpark, how many full autopsies do you think you’ve done?
Mark: [00:10:53] I know exactly how many I’ve done. I’ve done over 13,600.
Dan: [00:10:59] Wow.
Mark: [00:11:00] It’s been 43 years.
Dan: [00:11:14] So, eight years in the navy as a lieutenant commander doing pathology, where was the transition when you move on to be a county coroner? How did that progress for you?
Mark: [00:11:27] Well, I was in San Diego, I was finishing my obligation. When I finished my fellowship, the navy sent me back to San Diego to run the morgue. I was the first junior officer to run that morgue in the history of its time. They built a new hospital there. I did the first autopsy in the new San Diego Naval Hospital. Anyway, as I was ending my obligation, I was starting to work on the weekends at the then coroner’s office. San Diego was still a coroner’s office in those days. I would go on Saturdays and they would give me so many autopsies due and I would do them for $100 apiece. But that was 100 bucks.
Dave: [00:12:05] Oh, it’s like getting overtime.
Mark: [00:12:06] Oh, yeah.
Dave: [00:12:08] Yeah, you love it.
Mark: [00:12:09] I had young children, that was extra money that I really needed. But at the same time, San Diego was planning on becoming a medical examiner’s system and they were going to do away with the coroner altogether. So, at the very time that I’m getting out, they needed full-time forensic pathologists. So, they knew who I was. So, one day I was still in the navy, and the next day I was a deputy medical examiner in San Diego County. [Dave laughs] On the very first day that the ME office opened up, I was one of their MEs.
Dan: [00:12:43] Can you explain the difference between a coroner’s office and then the ME’s office system?
Mark: [00:12:48] Well, I always explain it by a medical examiner is a forensic pathologist with an attitude. Because as a coroner, coroner is a political title. So, that person might be appointed, that person might be elected, but there’s nothing about their training as a physician or as a medical person that has anything to do with their job. They just have to fulfil this public office. San Diego at that time wasn’t appointed by the Board of Supervisors.
Dan: [00:13:17] Right. So, just to clarify, a coroner is typically elected by the people, sometimes appointed in the city or state that they work in. But in some cases, they might not even have medical training. They’re simply holding the office of the coroner. Whereas an ME, medical examiner, has to have a degree from a medical school and have a certification from the state.
Mark: [00:13:40] Yes. There are a few counties in California where they abolish the coroner altogether and they set up a medical examiner’s office. So, a forensic pathologist is deciding the cause and the manner of death and that person is filling the death certificate up. But in a coroner system, a coroner can’t do an autopsy. That’s a medical procedure. So, a coroner has to hire a forensic pathologist to do the autopsies. There’s nothing to stop the coroner from not even caring what you say. They could technically put down on the death certificate whatever they wanted. But you can imagine how you can get into political situations that way.
Dave: [00:14:18] Oh, absolutely.
Mark: [00:14:19] Especially when it comes to the manner of death. When police are involved in someone’s death, in the old days, they would just call them accidents and just go on, even though maybe the scene was not quite that if the one person looked at it.
Dave: [00:14:33] It’s interesting you mentioned that Dr. Super, Dan and I frequently speak about how victims and their families are directly affected by the competence of the detective that’s assigned to the case. And in this instance, I’m sure it’s the same for you. A medical examiner or a deputy medical examiner out on a scene is at the mercy of whatever law enforcement has done at that scene prior to the medical examiner’s arrival. So, in some instances, you might have a pristine scene that’s been really well handled by an investigator. But Dan and I have both seen plenty of instances where a scene can be mishandled or evidence can be misinterpreted. Do you run into that?
Mark: [00:15:21] Well, when I was first a new deputy medical examiner in San Diego, as I recall, San Diego had three, maybe four teams of detectives that were on their homicide team, and they had been together for years and years. So, these are, I don’t want to say, crusty, but you know what we’re talking about.
Dave: [00:15:42] Salty veterans that have seen it all.
Mark: [00:15:44] Yes. And we were told that they weren’t going to be very accepting of some young guy showing up at their scene and some kind of know it all. So, I was a little hesitant when I went to my first scene early in this time, and I showed up at this homicide scene, and I said, “I’m Dr. Super. I’m here for this.” And the detective said, “Well, what took you so long?”
Dave: [00:16:07] [laughs]
Mark: [00:16:09] They were totally accepting from day one. They couldn’t figure out why nobody ever came before.
Dave: [00:16:14] It’s great to have another set of eyes, especially one who you know is going to be the last person to see this victim. I want that person to know everything about the case.
Mark: [00:16:23] I can’t tell you how many times police– they’ll be at scenes and they’re talking to each other and they’ll point to something on the body and they’ll say, “Oh, that’s a powder stain.” And I’m thanking them, “No, that’s not what that is. No, no, no.” Or, they have the range of fire or the direction of fire totally opposite what it really is. And sometimes, you can tell at the scene and they’re just wrong. They’re wrong right off the bat. So, it does help to have somebody have another set of eyes, or it helps to say, “Let’s just wait until we get to the autopsy before we decide what we know what’s happened here.”
Dave: [00:17:01] Yeah. The worst thing is to have to course correct after you’ve characterized something as one thing and it turns out to be something completely different.
Dan: [00:17:11] I do remember my first autopsy as a detective. I’d been to one as a patrol officer simply for a training exercise to get me used to what this was going to be, because I always had the goal to be a detective and I knew that this was on the horizon for me. I remember the medical examiner having me roll prints, so roll the fingerprints of the subject that was on the table, who he was going to be examining, which I was a little hesitant to do. I think it was to break my mind out of what I’m actually looking at and get involved in the process. It was great. But going back to that first autopsy as a detective, by all means, this case looked like it could have been an overdose, something else.
[00:18:02] We get into the autopsy and the medical examiner, our doctor, quickly determines you’ve got a homicide on your hands. I felt a rush come over my body, and I’m imagining that there are times when you are doing an autopsy and you start seeing things that completely change the course of direction for an investigation. Can you tell us what those moments are like for you?
Mark: [00:18:27] Well, they’re the things that make it fun to do this. It’s why we’re doing it. Like all jobs, there’s a lot of mundane stuff that happens with dead bodies. But we’ll be doing an autopsy and I’ll say, “Whoa, this bullet, we thought was doing this direction.” We always like to have the police there, some detective there from the agency. I don’t know, if you have that experience. They send the person that’s the least knowledgeable to the autopsy.
Dave: [00:18:57] [laughs] We usually send the case agent, the one who’s going to be leading it. We want them to see– [crosstalk]
Mark: [00:19:01] That’s good, because sometimes they’re just looking at me like, “I don’t know, they just told me to come here.” I hate that. Anyway, I’ll go, “So, let’s go back to the scene. Where did you say this bullet was supposed to come from?” It totally changes everything they think about the scene, some finding that I’ve had. I had a case where there were two bullet holes, and I thought it was an in one side and an out on the other side. But when I got in there, there were two bullets. So, things can change on a dime in the middle of the autopsy. They can.
Dan: [00:19:36] Yeah, they totally can. I’ve been there when it happened. Dr. Super, I’m just curious. I watched that Netflix series, Murder Mountain. I was wondering if you were involved in any of those investigations, because I know they happened in Southern Humboldt County.
Mark: [00:19:50] So there’re five homicides that discuss Murder Mountain. I autopsied all five of those people.
Dan: [00:19:56] For our listeners who aren’t familiar, Murder Mountain is a Netflix series, but it really discusses the many disappearances and murders that have occurred in Southern Humboldt County, and they all revolve around the marijuana industry, and these growers that are up in the mountains. It really goes into a little more detail about one particular case where a cannabis grower was actually murdered.
Mark: [00:20:22] I was going up there for years. Well, I did the famous one where Mr. Ford, who walked into the sheriff’s office up and said, “I’ve been a very bad boy,” and he pulled a woman’s breast out of his pocket.
Dave: [00:20:36] For listeners, this was 1998 when Wayne Adam Ford turned himself in. He’s now on death row at San Quentin.
Mark: [00:20:44] Yes. And so, that got people pretty concerned. So, that afternoon, I was out digging up various parts of this woman that he had dismembered and buried. He was a trucker and he ended up being tried for several women along his way. He just decided to admit to it one day and there it was. And the torso that went with the pieces that I had was just identified through familial DNA.
Dave: [00:21:13] Oh, wow.
Mark: [00:21:14] They finally found out who this young woman was. And the family, they didn’t know where she was for years and years, because the police said, “Well, she’s an adult. She can take off if she wants, we don’t have to track her down.” So, they had no idea where this young woman went and she’s been dead for all these years.
Dave: [00:21:32] So, the victim in that case was 25-year-old, Kerry Ann Cummings, and they were finally able to identify her. The closure that provides a family, invaluable. That’s why we want the answers. I don’t care if it comes in 10 years or 20 years, but we got to get some answers here. There’re too many people that care.
Dan: [00:21:52] Yes.
Mark: [00:22:07] We had a case, what I call Thelma and Louise case. So, these two guys, they’re going to buy some marijuana. They’re going to buy some dope. That’s not a big deal. That’s just commerce up in Humboldt County. [Dave laughs] So, they don’t pay for that. They just take the dope and take off. So, the person that was supposed to get the money called the police because by God, they– [laughs]
Dave: [00:22:33] I’ve been robbed.
Mark: [00:22:34] I’ve been robbed. That was a legitimate crime. So, they start chasing these guys up these mountain roads, and they’re exchanging gunfire with these guys. One of them has an M14 and the other one has a .45 semiautomatic pistol, I think the driver. So, they’re chasing these guys on this mountain road. So, they decide to put the strip down and take out their tires and they do that. Now they’re riding on these rims on these mountain roads. So, they decide to just aim for the cliff. And so, they aim for the cliff, and they went over the cliff, and they’re talking on the phone saying, “You’re not going to stop us.” So, as they went over the cliff, the driver takes his semiautomatic pistol and shoots his accomplice and then he shoots himself in the head-
Dave: [00:23:24] On their way down.
Mark: [00:23:26] -on their way down. So, the car goes down a cliff. And so, the police are up there, they’re looking down, going, “What the heck was that?” Next thing you know, the driver’s crawling back up. He shot himself in the face. He didn’t do the job. So, he ended up being tried for the other guy’s murder in the robbery and all the shooting of the police and stuff.
Dave: [00:23:48] I love the poetry of that.
Mark: [00:23:52] [laughs] That was Humboldt County stuff.
Dave: [00:23:54] Like, Humboldt County craziness?
Mark: [00:23:55] Yes. Absolutely.
Dan: [00:23:57] So, Dr. Super, you said you worked in Merced County, which is more Central California. Does that cover Yosemite National Park?
Mark: [00:24:05] No, Mariposa County does.
Dan: [00:24:07] Mariposa County. Okay. I recently visited Yosemite and became fascinated by some stories of unfortunate circumstances that led to people’s deaths in that park. I thought it was really interesting because they had really broken it down to deaths at waterfalls and deaths on the roads there. I was just curious if you’d covered any of those cases.
Mark: [00:24:34] For many years, I also did all the autopsies in Madera County, and as you know, part of the park is in Madera County.
Dan: [00:24:40] Oh, yeah.
Mark: [00:24:41] There’s mountainous rural areas around the park in that county. Well, we had a case where a man– He’s a tour guide, and he knows where these natural waterslides are up there. So, he takes a bunch of Japanese tourists out on this hike up to this waterslide. He says, “I’ll show you how this works.” So, he climbs to the top of the slide, and he slides down. And then when he gets to the bottom, he stands up, and then he just says, “Oh, S-H-I-T.” Falls, like, several hundred feet off a cliff. While these poor Japanese people are looking, “Ah, now, how did we get here and how do we get back?”
Dave: [00:25:26] Right. He’s got the keys, right?
Dan: [00:25:28] Yeah.
Mark: [00:25:28] Yes. He knew how to get there and he broke about everything.
Dave: [00:25:32] Oh, man.
Dan: [00:25:34] So, this tour guide shows these people what should be a really fun experience for him. But when he gets to the bottom of the waterslide, he loses his footing and plummets to his death.
Mark: [00:25:46] Yeah.
Dan: [00:25:47] Oh, my God.
Dave: [00:25:49] What does a fall of several hundred feet do to a human body? I have my own assumptions.
Mark: [00:25:55] Ones that hit solid ground, they have major fractures of the long bones, and thorax, and usually head too. I’ve done some parachutes too, people that parachutes aren’t open. Or, in the military I’ve done like green beret type, those Special Forces that do low altitude jumps?
Dave: [00:26:14] Right.
Mark: [00:26:15] That don’t work sometimes.
Dave: [00:26:16] Yeah. The parachute doesn’t deploy.
Mark: [00:26:18] Well, they jump high, but it’s not high enough for the chute to deploy.
Dave: [00:26:23] Got it.
Mark: [00:26:24] Yeah. It’s a straightforward training accident, but it’s fatal.
Dave: [00:26:27] What are the types of cases that really interest you or get you very engaged versus what are the more mundane things that–? I’m not even talking about autopsies. What’s your favorite part of your job? What’s your least favorite part of your job?
Mark: [00:26:42] My favorite part of the job has always been going to the scenes and seeing what’s going on, because that’s where the excitement is for us. It’s different than working in a lab all day. I always found the asphyxial death to be the most challenging, because there’s not a lot of wounds. A lot of people can see somebody who’s been shot 10 times and figure out that they weren’t going to make it. Not to say that they’re not important, but as far as figuring out why somebody died in using my head, those kinds of cases are the best.
Dave: [00:27:15] You said asphyxial, like choking or strangling, lack of air.
Mark: [00:27:20] Yes.
Dave: [00:27:21] You like figuring out puzzles.
Mark: [00:27:22] Yes. People that have been smothered, people that have been strangled, people that have been poisoned and made to look like something else, those are the ones that really make it worthwhile and you go, “Yeah, now I know why I’m doing this.”
Dan: [00:27:39] Over the years, you’ve been doing this for, I think you said 40 years. Is that right?
Mark: [00:27:43] Over 40 years.
Dan: [00:27:44] Over 40 years. You started in 1979, I believe. Is that correct?
Mark: [00:27:48] That was my first autopsy as a medical student.
Dan: [00:27:51] Yeah. First autopsy in 1979, up to current day, we’re in 2023. And the changes in forensic science, can you talk about what that’s been like from your perspective?
Mark: [00:28:06] Like, night and day, for all sorts of reasons, probably in my tenure, DNA has been the number one thing that’s really changed what we do and changed how we figure out who did what and how to identify somebody. Now we’re identifying much more people using state-of-the-art DNA stuff. I think that’s the big change, the technical changes. We were typing reports in those days. We’d have to type the reports, then there would be two mistakes, and then the stenographer would have to retype the whole thing. Then there was also the days before digital photography, we’d take all these photographs of the autopsy, and then they’d run them down to the store, and then the next day they’d pick them up and they’d be all out of focus. Those days– when digital photography came around, for me, that was the greatest thing, because I can see right away if the photo is not what I want, and you can take 100 of them.
Dave: [00:29:08] We’ve tried to relay that as detectives to patrol officers for years like, “Hey, you know, there’s a little disc, and it saves lots of these things on one little digital disc. Take three times as many as you thought you needed.”
Mark: [00:29:25] Yes.
Dave: [00:29:25] There’s never enough. [laughs]
Mark: [00:29:27] Yes. Polaroids were a big deal. Remember how much those cost a pop?
Dave: [00:29:33] Oh, yeah.
Mark: [00:29:34] So, if we used three or four boxes of those and the coroner would start to grumble.
Dave: [00:29:38] Right. Like, you’re hitting my budget now.
Mark: [00:29:41] Yeah, absolutely.
Dave: [00:29:43] Those are things to be concerned with. I think back to a few of our cases where we want to throw the body through a full body scan just to see what it looks like underneath and there’re concerns about, “Well, that’s going to cost a few thousand dollars to throw this person in the machine and get a scan. Is it something we really need?” Those are things where I’m like, “It’s a murder. Yeah, we need it.” The right answer is, “Let’s do it the right way.”
Mark: [00:30:11] Oh. Absolutely. Digital x-rays are another example of that. In the small rural jurisdictions, it was uncommon to get any kind of x-ray on a firearm injury. It was uncommon, and the coroners couldn’t figure out why that we even needed those. It took all we could too to convince them that you can’t investigate a firearm injury without an x-ray. You just can’t. I don’t care what you want to say about it. I don’t care who saw what. You really need an x-ray-
Dave: [00:30:37] Right.
Mark: [00:30:38] -because there could be still a bullet in there. You think you know what happened, but you don’t know what happened.
Dave: [00:30:43] Yeah.
Mark: [00:30:44] So, digital x-rays have been a real big help and now they’re affordable. So, even the smaller agencies often have one, and you can take a whole bunch of x-rays.
Dave: [00:31:09] We have a lot of law enforcement and first responders that listen to our podcast. What are some things as a medical examiner with tons of experience? Are there things that you wish were being taught in police academies and ongoing training with law enforcement that would really aid you when you get called out to a scene and then you have to do your follow-up work?
Mark: [00:31:34] I always advise people, especially in the emergency rooms, those people are really good at what they do. God bless them. They save people. But they should not tell people what entrances and exits are. They should quit doing that. They should quit making these kinds of statements that so often are wrong. The investigation will find out that they weren’t even close. They think because they see a lot of gunshot wounds coming through the ER that they know what happened. No, they know what to do about it. They know how to help the person, but they don’t actually look at the wound itself. That’s what I do.
Dan: [00:32:14] So, these are all things that come up in court, I imagine. If you’ve got statements from ER personnel or other law enforcement personnel who are putting statements in reports and then it contradicts what you found at the autopsy, I would imagine that that is just ripe pickings for a defense attorney.
Mark: [00:32:33] Oh, yeah. I’ve had that happen a whole bunch of times. I’ve had defense attorneys try to blame the surgeons, because they tried to save the person. Now they can’t figure out why the person died. I’ve seen all of that stuff. But it’s easily overcome, really. It’s easy to explain things to juries, because juries aren’t stupid. I think a lot of people think juries are some– maybe just don’t know what they’re doing. They’re intelligent people. When you just talk to them plainly, this is what happened to the dead person. That’s my job in the courtroom. I don’t get any reward if the defendant is convicted.
Dan: [00:33:09] Right.
Mark: [00:33:10] It doesn’t help me any. I’m not there to convict him. In fact, him or her. Because if they got the wrong person, I don’t want to be part of the whole thing.
Dan and Dave: [00:33:19] Right.
Mark: [00:33:20] My job is to tell the jury or the judge, what happened to the deceased person as clearly and concisely as I can in words that people understand. Sometimes, medical and scientific terms go over some people’s heads, but I can explain it in kind of a Midwestern kid and say, “This is how this happened.” They’ll nod. You can see the jurors, they’ll nod. They get it, “Okay, now I’m on the same page with you. That’s my job.”
Dave: [00:33:48] Have you had any memorable showdowns in court?
Mark: [00:33:51] Oh, yeah. I had a case where the prosecution really wanted the photographs. You’re probably experienced with this, where the defense gets all the photographs eliminated, because they’re prejudicial.
Dave: [00:34:06] Right.
Mark: [00:34:06] But they don’t tell me that. I show up and I start to talk about the injuries, and I’ll say something about, “Well, you can see this on the photograph or something like that.” And they’re like, “You know, then there’s a big sidebar and everybody’s yelling at everybody.”
Dave: [00:34:20] Right.
Mark: [00:34:21] So, the prosecutor goes, “Well, Dr. Super, don’t you think it would better for you if you had the pictures?” And the judge just slammed his gavel down, and he threatens to send this DA out to fix parking tickets for the next six years. It’s a big old thing. Well, then he does it again. About five minutes later, he insinuates that pictures will better. So, that was it.
Dave: [00:34:46] Oh, yeah.
Mark: [00:34:46] I got hauled into chambers. It’s a child death. And so, there’s an easel there with my diagrams. And the judge goes, “Dr. Super, do you think you can testify to these by this diagram?” And I’m going, “Well, I can.” It’s not a matter of what I know. I said, “I think I can explain these injuries based on these diagrams.” Obviously, the photographs help. He says, “I know, I know, I know,” and he explains to me why they’re not going to get in. So, then we go back out, and I’m going to start my discussion with my diagrams. Well, no, a jurors passed a note to the judge saying he’d like to see pictures. Oh, my God.[laughter]
Mark: [00:35:31] More gavels, more pounding, more yelling.
Dave: [00:35:34] Sometimes, I think some of those rulings are, the judge doesn’t want to see that stuff. I’m not allowing it because I don’t want to deal with it. I can understand how in a kid case, that would be cumulative and a little bit prejudicial. I understand horrific pictures there is testifying to those types of things. You have to be sensitive to what you’re explaining, but at the same time, this is the facts about what this person did to this person. Let’s talk about it. That’s what we’re here for.
Dan: [00:36:07] Yeah. So, I’m always curious when I see a certain cadre of medical examiners who end up being expert witnesses for the defense, and that I would imagine that you have experience in being a rebuttal witness or defense brings an expert in to rebut what you’ve determined during your autopsy. Can you talk about what that experience is like for you?
Mark: [00:36:36] I hate it. I don’t plan on doing much of it. I guess, it’s not helpful. Everyone deserves their time. They deserve a representation of their opinions. We’re supposed to be criticizing each other just as professionals, which I don’t like. I don’t like to testify that this other pathologist is wrong and they’re insinuate that they’re dumb or that they’re sloppy. I don’t like that.
Dave: [00:37:06] A lot of people only come across a dead body a couple of times in their life. For someone who sees death, and destruction, and harm, and people being maimed so often, I’m wondering, how does dealing with death as frequently as you do? How does it affect you?
Mark: [00:37:26] The psychological part of this started with me in my fellowship. So, you become a pathologist. In order to be a forensic pathologist, you have to be a general pathologist first, so you go to residency for that. And then the navy, fortunately sent me to Washington, D.C. to become a forensic pathologist. There was only one slot in the whole world that was open and they chose me to go there.
Dave: [00:37:49] Wow.
Mark: [00:37:50] It was 1984, 1985, when I was actually doing full time forensic pathology, and that was in Baltimore, in Washington, D.C., in the city. I stuffed myself around six months, eight months into it, and I coined the term in my own head was tired eyes. I felt like worn out. I was starting to get emotionally detached from things. It just seemed near the end of my fellowship, I went through this kind of veil where one part of my brain just set all this emotional stuff aside, and I realized somebody at the scene has to be the person going, “This is what we have to do. We have to get this, we have to do this, we have to do this.” We can’t worry about how things look and how sad everybody is and how distraught all the families are and the community is. Somebody has to be the person that’s going to get all this information down and get it right-
Dave: [00:38:44] Absolutely.
Mark: [00:38:45] -and get it documented, because we want somebody to go down for this if it’s crime. I could be the one that has to do that. So, I was able to put that aside. It worked for years and years and years. But now, as I’m going to retire here in a few weeks after all this time.
Dave: [00:39:03] Congratulations.
Dan: [00:39:04] Congratulations.
Mark: [00:39:05] Thank you. And it’s started to affect me again.
Dave: [00:39:09] I’m not surprised, to be honest.
Mark: [00:39:11] It’s creeping up.
Dave: [00:39:13] Yeah.
Mark: [00:39:13] So, it’s really time for me to get out.
Dave: [00:39:15] Yeah. I think sometimes the box that we all stuff it in gets a little disorganized and the lid pops open sometimes.
Mark: [00:39:23] Yes.
Dave: [00:39:24] How do you deal with it, and how does your family and close friends deal with what you handle on a day-to-day basis in life for the last 40 plus years?
Mark: [00:39:35] Well, my individual family– My wife just recently died.
Dan: [00:39:42] Ah, I’m sorry to hear that.
Mark: [00:39:43] She was an investigator, so she knew what I did. We met when I was an ME. My first wife, you can see I just got detached. Those kinds of things that happen to you. It didn’t help my marriage. Let’s put it that way.
Dave: [00:39:58] Right.
Mark: [00:39:59] But the other people in your life, they want you to entertain them at parties. Anybody noticed that?
Dave: [00:40:07] It’s the genesis of our podcast, honestly. Tell me a story.
Mark: [00:40:10] Yes. What’s the goriest thing you’ve ever seen, that kind of thing. I have two cases or three cases that I throw out there because they were so cool, and the autopsy changed everything. But I don’t like to go into the dismembered people and the kids that are starved. I did the kids that were starved and beaten and left in the storage bin in Reading that case. It was horrific. And then I’m autopsying them at Christmas at that time and I have my own kids. So, it has been brutal on my psyche over 40 years. But other people love to hear about that stuff. They just do. I’m a hit at parties.
Dave: [00:40:58] It’s one of the things that we talk about. I say, when I go to a dinner party or I’m at a barbecue with folks, there can be all kinds of people with much more esteemed credentials than I have. But typically, firefighters and cops and medical staff, people who work in hospitals especially, get acute cases. We get asked a lot about, “Well, tell me about your job.” You usually have the most interesting stories at these types of functions, so people tend to want to ask about things, but there is a proper way to ask those things.
Mark: [00:41:37] Yeah. Sometimes, I’m at the party to get away from that.
Dave: [00:41:42] Right.
Mark: [00:41:43] So, now I’m back immersed in it all and bringing it all back in my own brain.
Dave: [00:41:49] Can’t escape.
Mark: [00:41:49] Yes.
Dave: [00:41:51] Yeah. What’s the rest of your day look like? Are you doing anything that you enjoy in your job, or are you stuck doing the mundane?
Mark: [00:42:00] Well, I’m no longer doing any autopsies in Merced County. I’m semi-retired now and just closing cases. By the end of the month, I’m ready to get on to being a grandpa.
Dave: [00:42:13] Well, that’s well deserved, sir.
Mark: [00:42:15] Thank you.
Dan: [00:42:16] Do you have a favorite baseball team?
Mark: [00:42:18] Well, right now it’s a Giants, but I’m a homer. So, when I moved back down to San Diego, I was a big Padre fan in the day before I moved up to Northern California. Then I became a rabid Giant fan.
Dan: [00:42:29] Yeah.
Mark: [00:42:29] And now I can see me in a couple of years being a Padre fan again. We’ll see. But right now, it’s the Giants all.
Dave: [00:42:36] We’re both Dodger fans.
Mark: [00:42:37] Uh-oh. Oh-oh. You mean the scum-sucking Dodgers?[laughter]
Dan: [00:42:46] That’s great.
Dave: [00:42:47] Dr. Super, really appreciate your time. I know you’re busy, and I hope you enjoy your retirement, and get away from it all.
Mark: [00:42:56] Thank you very much.
Dan: [00:42:58] Thank you for so many years of service for our country and the county that you served.
Mark: [00:43:02] Thank you. Appreciate it.
Dave: [00:43:07] On the next episode of The Briefing Room–
Lindsey: [00:43:10] With a lot of these child abduction suspects, when they’re interviewed, they will say the victim was just at the wrong place at the wrong time. It wasn’t like this perpetrator was out stalking them or had been watching them or picked them out ahead of time. It literally was they’re looking for a victim and the victim presented themselves.
Dan: [00:43:31] That’s next week on The Briefing Room.[music]
Yeardley: [00:43:37] The Briefing Room is produced by Jessica Halstead and co-produced by Detectives Dan and Dave. Executive producers are Gary Scott and me, Yeardley Smith. Our production manager is Logan Heftel. Logan also composed theme music. Soren Begin is our senior audio editor. Monika Scott runs our social media and our books are cooked and cats wrangled by Ben Cornwell.
[00:44:02] Thank you to SpeechDocs for providing transcripts. To read those transcripts or to hear past episodes, please go to our website at thebriefingroompod.com. The Briefing Room is an Audio 99 production. And I cannot go without saying thank you to you, all of you, our fans, you are the best fans in the pod universe. And I can say with complete confidence, nobody is better than you.
[Transcript provided by SpeechDocs Podcast Transcription]