If you endure a disfiguring accident and turn up dead in the local morgue, the man in charge of conducting autopsies for Nashville and the state of Tennessee thinks he has the right to display your scarred corpse to the public. Seriously.
Next month, Nashville medical examiner Dr. Bruce Levy is scheduled to go to trial in a lawsuit over whether he acted appropriately by allowing a reality television show to tape close-up footage of his autopsy of a naked and battered Francis Reidy III, a 21-year-old man killed in Nashville after stepping into traffic. A second trial, involving a case in which a woman's partially nude and decomposing body was filmed on her stained mattress, goes to trial in August. In depositions earlier this year, Levy was asked about how much freedom he has to publicly showcase the bodies he autopsies. "Do you believe that as a medical examiner you could take a body down here to the Nashville Convention Center and display it to the public and say, here are these injuries, assuming that you anonymize (sic) the face, that you could just take a human body and put it out in public and display it to people?" he was asked.
"Yes," the doctor replied, without qualification.
Next month, Levy is scheduled for a jury trial in Circuit Court on his decision to allow The Learning Channel to film the reality show True Stories from the Morgue from Nashville. In 2003, several families filed suit against Levy, The Learning Channel and Metro Government, claiming that autopsy footage of their loved ones was broadcast to a nationwide audience without their knowledge or permission. Some of the suits have since been settled.
"When we found out about this film footage and what had been done, I felt emotions that I didn't know existed," Cheryl Reidy testified. "I fell into a black hole. It was like losing him twice."
If the Reidys' despair is understandable, Levy's reaction hardly appears sympathetic. In both his deposition and email correspondence, the medical examiner appears camera-hungry, self-promotional and, worst of all, not particularly sensitive to the pathos of the families. Levy, though, tells the Scene that he saw the show merely as an educational vehicle.
"It was an opportunity to teach forensic pathology to a broader audience than I get to teach to," he says before taking a shot at his scandal-plagued predecessor, Dr. Charles Harlan. "And second, we had so many problems with the medical examiner's office in Nashville beforehand, and this was a chance to show the people of Middle Tennessee that this office has achieved the highest level of professional performance, and that was something that was poorly lacking in the past."
Some might say it's lacking now. According to court papers, Levy urged the film company to include footage of his children on the nationally broadcast show even while corpses were being filmed without family consent. "I just hope my kids will make it onto TV and not end up on your cutting room floor," he wrote in an April 2002 email. And later: "My only critical point is the absence of any of my family or balance of my professional and personal life." In deposition, Levy responded that he "absolutely" wanted the film company to include footage of his family.
Levy explains that he was acting like any parent might. "My kids got excited about being on TV, and what father wouldn't want to make their kids happy," he says, noting that the film company initiated interest in capturing personal footage. "It had nothing to do with promoting myself or my family. It was a reaction to what the production company wanted to do."
But Levy asked if he could "plug the show with the local media." In an email to the film company, he wrote, "I haven't formally contacted anyone yet, although we have a fairly comprehensive listing of all the local media outlets since we deal with them on a regular basis." In another email, a colleague asked him "how did you get that gig?"
Apparently Levy campaigned for it. He testified in deposition that he courted the film company after reading an email from them to the National Association of Medical Examiners. He replied to the company's email, detailing his autopsies of Tammy Wynette and James Earl Ray, as well as his experience on CNN and The Today Show.
To seal the deal, Levy even contacted the film company about cases they might find enticing. They included such sensational fare as a Hispanic transvestite, a man who was shot then washed off in a bathtub and a victim who was bound about the wrists and ankles with duct tape over his eyes and mouth.
"They asked me to provide interesting cases, and that's what I did," he says about his recommendations. "I thought they demonstrated issues in forensic science that would be good for forensic purposes."
In arguably the worst moment in his deposition, Levy testified that the consequences of airing dead bodies on a reality show didn't so much as cross his mind.
"When you agreed to do the show and as you approved the episode in raw footage, did you consider whether or not the airing of the shows could cause harm to the families of the decedents who were depicted?" the doctor was asked.
"I can't say I ever specifically thought about that issue," he replied.
Levy says that the film company assured him that they were going to seek permission from the families to film autopsies of their loved ones. "They had the experience in doing that, and it was something they had to do and it was something they were going to do," he says. "And for the entire first set of shows, they did."
But the lawyer for the Reidy family, Kathryn Barnett of Lieff Cabraser, says Levy is duty bound not to delegate such crucial matters. "We have expert proof filed with the court that doctors have a non-delegable duty to protect private medical information and to protect the privacy of patients," she says. "The important thing to the families I represent is that he was entrusted with an incredibly personal, private, painful duty, and they're concerned that a medical doctor would show such disregard for their privacy and the dignity they wanted their children to be treated with."
Moreover, Levy testified that in some cases, at least, he was aware of the company's plan to broadcast blurred facial features without family consent.
As far as Levy's comment that he believes he has the right to display a dead body at the Nashville Convention Center, the medical examiner says that he was speaking strictly from a legal standpoint. "My understanding is that there is nothing illegal about it, but it is nothing I would ever do."
Let's just hope CSI doesn't call.
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