Metro

Medical examiner to retire, leaving a complicated legacy

TED FITZGERALD/AP PHOTO/THE BOSTON HERALD
Massachusetts chief medical examiner Dr. Henry N. Nields.

The Massachusetts chief medical examiner, Dr. Henry N. Nields, announced his retirement Thursday after a decadelong tenure in which he was widely admired as a dedicated, hard-working public servant but one who often struggled to cope with controversies under his watch.

In an e-mail to his staff, Nields, 62, said he was leaving at a time when the “office maintains a solid foundation” and that he hopes “it will continue to make major strides forward with new leadership.” He said he will stay while authorities launch a search for his replacement and expects to step down around July 1.

Neither Nields nor his supervisor, public safety secretary Daniel Bennett, were available for comment Thursday.

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Some colleagues reacted with deep sadness to the news, including Dr. Richard Goldstein, a palliative care pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital, who emphasized Nields’s conscientiousness and “deep sensitivity” to families who lost loved ones, especially children.

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“I feel most privileged to have worked with him,” Goldstein said in a written statement.

Nields’s tenure, however, was also full of difficulties. He faced perennial shortages in funding and staff, and came under criticism for lengthy turnaround times for completing death investigations. Though he built up the staff to include 10 full-time medical examiners and two part-time ones, his office has yet to achieve full accreditation by the national organization that sets standards in the field, mostly because of backlog issues.

Nields also came under scrutiny for his office’s handling of suspicious infant deaths, especially after three assistant medical examiners, within the past two years, retracted shaken-baby syndrome homicide rulings they had initially made and revised the manners of death to be undetermined.

As a result, two infant murder trials were dropped, and one has been seriously undermined.

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A Boston Globe investigation found that the retractions took place in a highly decentralized system in which assistant medical examiners were given extraordinary freedom to make — and change — rulings, with little scrutiny of what factors, including possible conflicts of interest, may have influenced them.

While Nields has told authorities that it is his philosophy to trust the independence and professionalism of his staff, others argued that he abdicated important oversight as the senior supervisor.

Last month, at a meeting of a state panel that oversees his office, Nields announced a shift in his policy, saying that any revised death certificates out of his office would now be reviewed by him or his deputy. Meanwhile, the panel is in the midst of an ongoing review of some of the office’s procedures.

Several child-abuse specialists say they see Nields’s departure as an opportunity to bring fresh, stronger leadership into the office, especially around its handling of infant deaths.

“I hope this is an opportunity to make sure there are improvements in this aspect of their work,” said Dr. Robert Sege, a child abuse pediatrician.

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Nields took over as acting medical examiner in 2007, a time of upheavel at the agency. His predecessor was removed amid controversies, one involving a misplaced body. Two years later, Nields was given a permanent five-year appointment. He has been credited with a number of improvements, including opening a new Cape Cod facility in Sandwich and planning for a new facility in Westfield.

Nields kept a low public profile, routinely turning down interview requests. His supervisor, Bennett, told the Globe in an interview last year that Nields simply focused on his demanding work and was the “ultimate professional.” He said Nields could be reached at all hours and counted on to pitch in during any crisis.

A graduate of the Boston University School of Medicine, Nields began working with the Massachusetts medical examiner’s office in 1995, though he left shortly thereafter to join the New York City office, where he later took part in identifying victims of the Sept. 11 World Trade Center terrorist attacks.

He returned to Massachusetts in 2006. In the e-mail to his staff announcing his retirement, he thanked them for their hard work.

“My decision is not without some regret,” he wrote, but added that he was looking forward in retirement to “additional hunting and fishing time with my grandchildren.”

The Associated Press also contributed to this story. Patricia Wen can be reached at patricia.wen@globe.com.