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Sin City coroner inks deal for Discovery episodes

Sin City coroner inks deal for Discovery episodes

October 30th, 2011 in News

LAS VEGAS (AP) - About 14,000 people die each year in and around Las Vegas. The Clark County coroner's office investigates about 3,500 of those deaths and conducts about 1,500 autopsies.

There are stories behind those corpses - untold drama in the discovery of how the person met his or her end and the search for next-of-kin. For some, the name is the final mystery.

All of which prompted a cable television network to approach Coroner Michael Murphy to tell what his team of five medical examiners and 12 forensic technicians have learned about life and death in Sin City. The county recently inked a deal with Discovery Studios to make the medical examiner's office the subject of a series of TV episodes.

Murphy said he hopes to teach people about dangerous lifestyles while also putting a name to an unidentified body or two to bring closure to families that don't know what happened to missing loved one.

"The vast majority of people don't die from violent acts," Murphy said, putting diabetes, heart disease and prescription drug abuse atop the list of causes of death in this Nevada county home to almost 2 million residents and a neon-lit city that draws 40 million visitors a year.

"Hopefully it'll be a good way for people to think about health risks," he said. "We don't want clients."

Michael Masland, the Discovery Studios development official who worked for two years to reach a production deal with Murphy and Clark County, said he expects filming to begin soon and a pilot to air sometime in 2012, with at least several segments to follow.

"They know somebody's life is going to be changed by what they find," Masland said. "It's real human drama. But it's not reality television."

The Clark County Commission unanimously approved the production deal in September with a promise the county will get $5,000 per episode and Discovery Studios LLC of Silver Spring, Md., won't show personally identifiable characteristics. Clark County officials get to see rough cuts before the shows air.

Murphy, meanwhile, gets to include a public service announcement with each episode featuring one of his office's 202 currently unsolved cases.

The goal, Murphy and Masland said in separate interviews, is not to produce a show like CSI-Las Vegas, COPS, Las Vegas Jailhouse or even Dr. G: Medical Examiner.

Instead, they want to show coroner investigators and medical examiners at work - from accident or crime scene to autopsy and medical examination to search for and notification of next-of-kin.

Murphy is an energetic and completely bald 57-year-old former police officer and jailer who speaks frequently at conferences and seminars. He sheds his button-down look to make vacation trips to Africa to teach investigative techniques to police in Uganda and Tanzania. He underwent knee replacement surgery recently, and returned to work so quickly his doctor had to warn him to slow down.

He likes to say his staff speaks for the dead. He speaks for his staff.

"We see this as an opportunity to show people what we do, but it's not designed to show specific cases," Murphy said of the Discovery project. "We're not going to embarrass families."

Murphy made a name as an innovator in November 2003, shortly after he became coroner, when he began posting photos on the Internet of some of Las Vegas' 182 unidentified dead people. Critics said the images would be distasteful or macabre. He promised they'd be presented with respect and dignity.

The first day, a corrections officer called with the name of a man unidentified for 20 months after being hit by a vehicle. Twenty-eight other identifications quickly followed. By 2008, the federal government initiated a site dubbed the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System. The pioneering Las Vegas program is now being folded into the nationwide effort.

Masland said he expects to show Murphy and his staff as "advocates for people who have met their untimely demise, and of their families."

"The interesting part is the real skills that Mike and his team use," Masland said, "the science, forensics and problem-solving."

Walking through his modest county-funded office past cubicles where investigators work to track down next-of-kin, Murphy pointed to a photo of Dr. Jan Garavaglia, the Orlando, Fla.-based medical examiner and author who stars in the Dr. G shows on Discovery Health.

At conferences, the two sometimes compare stories and experiences, Murphy said. But their roles are different.

Through a security door into the Clark County morgue, Murphy explains he's an administrator, not a medical examiner who conducts autopsies.

"We want to show how we come to the conclusions, the cause and manner of death," Murphy said later. "We want people to see the hard work and emotion that are involved. It's more of a look behind the scenes."

DNA testing, blood toxicology and forensic dental work are common. Medical examiners still sometimes use Silly Putty to get fingerprints from dehydrated digits. An anthropologist may be enlisted to identify or date bones. An entomologist might be brought in to study insects collected with the corpse.

Actual dead bodies won't be shown, Murphy and Masland promised. But re-enactments might feature tricks and techniques unique to that case. Family members and witnesses might be enlisted, if they sign legal waivers.

"There are ways to film conversations and not give away what they're pointing to," Masland said. "We can use synthetic bodies or computer-generated graphics to show the forensic or investigative work and really make it understandable for an audience."

Murphy said he sees the Discovery programs as part of an ongoing effort to reach and teach people about "how the decisions you make can affect whether you live or die."

"It's a delicate balance," the Sin City coroner said. "The overall goal is to educate people about what we do and how we do it, and to help prevent death. We'd like to make it later, rather than sooner."