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Marcelle McDannel: Chief medical examiner's past should create hope, not headlines

Last week's splashy headline about the Alaska chief medical examiner's past struggles with drugs and alcohol was not news to those of us who practice criminal law.

All of us -- both prosecutors and defense attorneys alike -- have known about Dr. Gary Zientek's past, including his misdemeanor convictions, for years. As the Daily News article correctly reported, Dr. Zientek has always been upfront and honest about his past problems. But no one has made an issue of it, not even in court. I'd like to think that this is because, having seen addiction cut across all professions and social classes, we criminal law practitioners have come to believe in second chances. But compassion among members of the defense bar is not what has kept Dr. Zientek's past out of courtrooms.

A medical examiner is a physician detective usually called by the prosecution in a homicide trial to explain to the jury the manner and cause of someone's death. Testimony from a medical examiner is often a powerful component of the prosecution's effort to obtain a conviction.

If there were even a hint that Dr. Zientek's ability to do his job was compromised by his history with drugs and alcohol, I can guarantee that defense attorneys across the state would have been more than happy -- gleeful even -- to exploit it at trial. There is, after all, nothing more professionally satisfying than a good cross-examination, and we have an ethical duty to explore any weakness in the prosecution's case that would benefit our clients. So the fact that Dr. Zientek's past has not been paraded in front of juries across this state means only one thing: He's good at his job.

I have personally interviewed and cross-examined Dr. Zientek on multiple occasions. Each time my efforts to find flaws in his conclusions have fallen flat; his opinions are fair and supported by evidence.

His colleagues agree. Dr. Norman Means of Northwest Legal Consultants, who has worked as Alaska's medical examiner on a contract basis during vacancies, has reviewed many of Dr. Zientek's cases and regards him as "highly professional and competent." Working as a private consultant, Dr. Means is hired to review Dr. Zientek's work for the express purpose of finding errors.

Dr. Means believes, "Alaska is fortunate to have a skilled forensic pathologist like Dr. Zientek as its chief medical examiner." He's right. The United States is currently facing a nationwide shortage of qualified forensic pathologists to fill positions as medical examiners.

Of the more than 17,000 medical school graduates each year, only 30 to 40 ultimately become forensic pathologists. A study by the National Academy of Sciences in 2009 found that there are an estimated 500 full-time forensic pathologists in the United States, while projections suggest that 1,000 are needed to provide adequate coverage. Yearly, only 70 percent of available positions are filled.

The job of chief medical examiner is not a position Alaska wants to have vacant or filled by some incompetent quack. Not only do medical examiners conduct autopsies and make findings in suspicious or violent deaths, they also perform critical public health functions like identifying diseases with epidemic potential and watching for cases of infection or toxicity that could herald biological or chemical terrorism.

Given that Dr. Zientek is a competent professional performing an important job, there was no need for our state's largest newspaper to mine his past for salacious, front-page tidbits. The events reported happened over a decade ago, and the relevance of Dr. Zientek's addictions as a matter of public knowledge has long passed. But since the damage has been done, let's focus on the one aspect of Dr. Zientek's ordeal that is still relevant: His example that people can recover from drug and alcohol addictions and rebuild their lives, even when they've hit rock bottom.

Years ago, after his medical license was suspended, Dr. Zientek lost everything: his job, his home, his family. He found himself working odd jobs. He considered giving up medicine entirely. But he didn't. Dr. Zientek resurrected his career and reclaimed his life.

So, to our statewide community, plagued as it is by shocking rates of addiction and the ever-rising costs of treating addicts like criminals, Dr. Zientek's perseverance is a lesson that it is in our best interest to help people with addictions rather than stigmatizing them or locking them up.

And to people currently locked in the same struggle: His story is evidence that getting your life back is possible. As Dr. Zientek himself told me last week, "Part of recovery is helping others, so I hope someone else out there can look to me as an example and feel that they can do it too."

Marcelle McDannel has been working in criminal law for almost two decades, both as a prosecutor and criminal defense attorney. She currently practices criminal defense statewide. Contact her at marcelle@alaskadispatch.com.



By MARCELLE McDANNEL