The Tennessean (Nashville, Tennessee)
SECTION: MAIN NEWS
BYLINE: Brian Haas
A small amount of marijuana found in a Mississippi hotel room has forced big changes in the way Nashville's medical examiner stores and handles property.
The marijuana was taken from corpses. And the person who took it was the man tasked with examining the bodies of people who died tragically in Tennessee and Mississippi.
Tuesday's guilty plea by Dr. Bruce Levy on a charge of official misconduct raises serious questions about the way his office secured and stored evidence, particularly illegal drugs. Prosecutors said Levy took some of the marijuana from a locker that stores evidence from autopsies at Forensic Medical, the company that hosts the medical examiner's office.
Despite assertions that security was always adequate, Davidson County's interim chief medical examiner has since installed fingerprint scanners and other security measures to limit and track access to evidence.
"Prior to this incident, there has never been an issue with the integrity of the evidence that is either collected or stored at the medical examiner's offices," Dr. Amy McMaster said Tuesday. She didn't elaborate on the office's prior security policies.
Levy, 50, didn't speak after the plea. His attorney, David Raybin, read a statement on his behalf, apologizing to the people of Tennessee and detailing eight months of addiction recovery. If Levy sticks to the terms of his three-year probation, he won't spend a moment in prison and the felony charge will be wiped from his record.
"I am committed to a useful and productive medical career so that I will be able to continue to serve and help my fellow Tennesseans," Raybin read.
The case against Levy was another embarrassment for Davidson County's Office of the Medical Examiner. In 1998, Levy replaced Dr. Charles Harlan, who had his medical license revoked for misconduct. Complaints against Harlan included incomplete examinations, botched cases and macabre personal behavior that included storing body parts in his laundry room.
Though Levy himself was criticized for allowing a television show to videotape autopsies without families' permission, he was largely credited with restoring integrity to the office, a feat that prosecutors recognized Tuesday after the plea.
"They brought a professionalism to that office that I hope people don't forget about. He did a wonderful job," said Assistant District Attorney General Dan Hamm. "Does that excuse what he did? No. He's paid the price for it."
Bust was in Mississippi
The misconduct charge stemmed from a March 16 bust in Madison County, Miss., where Levy was set to testify in a case. Narcotics agents there seized a package containing marijuana headed for his hotel room. They found more marijuana in the room, totaling about 48 grams in all.
Prosecutors on Tuesday said that some of that marijuana was found in a sealed evidence bag, taken from a Forensic Medical evidence closet. Assistant District Attorney General Dina Shabayek said the medical examiner typically stores property and evidence only in non-criminal cases such as accidents and suicides. She said it is kept in two closets, one for Davidson County, the other for other counties.
In all, she said, five bags containing marijuana were taken from the non-Davidson County evidence closet. She said they couldn't prove Levy took all five, but "nobody else is suspected."
The extent of the missing marijuana was discovered in a Tennessee Bureau of Investigation audit, which officials said is not public record. It is unclear whether the audit turned up other missing evidence.
Levy entered a pretrial diversion program in Mississippi, avoiding a conviction and allowing him to expunge his criminal record there, too, if he follows through with his probation.
Standards can vary
Industry standards for evidence handling are hit-or-miss, said Joe Latta
, executive director of the International Association for Property and Evidence
. He said many police departments don't have formal evidence policies, much less a medical examiner's office.
"Rarely do we have any standards," said Latta
, whose group trains law enforcement on best practices for handling evidence. "I'm guessing his predecessor, his predecessor's predecessor, didn't have any guidelines."
Storing illegal drugs at a medical examiner's office for any length of time is particularly difficult, he said.
"It's just opening it up for problems," he said. "They need to probably adopt some good, sound property room standards and limit access to it."
McMaster said that despite her satisfaction with prior policies, she has tightened them.
Fewer people will have access to the evidence lockers. New surveillance cameras have been installed. And the lockers now have fingerprint scanners, which limit and log everyone who goes in or out.
"Overall, our evidence procedures are sound," she said.
Mayor is satisfied
Mayor Karl Dean said through a spokeswoman that he was satisfied with the security changes.
Prosecutors said no current or past criminal cases will be affected by Levy's guilty plea and none of the drugs taken from evidence was part of a prosecution.
Levy will even testify in coming days in Mississippi in at least two criminal cases.
Raybin said Levy's guilty plea won't come up because Levy wasn't actually convicted of any of the charges.
Raybin was less open in discussing Levy's future.
A state board last week allowed Levy to keep his medical license, albeit on a probationary basis for the next five years.
"We decline to discuss Dr. Levy's future plans except to say that now that these things are behind him and he's on diversion, he's in a good position to move forward," Raybin said.
Contact Brian Haas at 615-726-8986 or
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