Gov. Jack Markell signed a bill Tuesday that will abolish the Chief Medical Examiner’s office.
The new legislation will create the Division of Forensic Science, which will be housed under the Department of Safety and Homeland Security.
The Senate passed the bill last week and House members debated the legislation Tuesday afternoon.
The Department of Health and Social Services and the Department of Safety and Homeland Security made the proposal for the new division last month after an investigation earlier this year revealed drug tampering had occurred within the CME’s Controlled Substance Lab.
Two lab employees have been arrested while Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Richard Callery is suspended with pay.
“We had a medical examiner that simply wasn’t around,” said Lewis Schiliro, secretary of the Department of Safety and Homeland Security. “He was off conducting separate business while he was chief medical examiner and I think that created a huge management gap.”
The scandal has jeopardized hundreds of drug cases within the state. An audit discovered at least 51 pieces of potentially compromised evidence including marijuana, Oxycontin, heroin and cocaine.
While representatives said they realize the need for the new division, some were concerned about how the change would affect jobs and employees in the Wilmington office.
“In the bill it specifically states that homeland security could have the right to move that division section within a division outside the city of Wilmington and I have some grave concerns about that,” said Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington South. “With the city, we constantly are asking people to come in and the last thing I want to do is vote on a bill that would allow employees to move outside of the city.”
Schiliro said they have no plans to move the facility. “As a matter of fact, we’ve currently invested, with Secretary Landgraf (Rita Landgraf, Secretary of the Department of Health and Social Services), about $150,000 in security upgrades, upgrades in terms of access control and our ability to really contain chain of custody,” he explained.
Other lawmakers have raised concerns that the division is too close to law enforcement and that it could create a conflict of interest but Schiliro said the Division of Forensic Science is more aligned with what his department already does.
“Forensic science is at the core of our work in the criminal justice system,” said Governor Markell in a statement following the bill signing. “This legislation will help us create a structure for forensic science that can support the criminal justice community in a way that is expert, timely, professionally independent, and accountable.”