When Orleans Parish Coroner Dr. Dwight McKenna was first sworn into office in May 2018, media mogul, founder of Radio One and TV One, and long-time family friend Cathy Hughes, made the trip to New Orleans to celebrate the occasion. In fact, she was among several individuals, including former Congressman Cedric Richmond and Meharry Medical College President Dr. James E. K. Hildreth, to deliver remarks at a festive gathering honoring Dr. McKenna’s investiture into the history-making role as the first African-American physician to be elected coroner in the nation.

Like others who spoke, Hughes lauded Dr. McKenna. At the same time, she cautioned that his history-making accomplishment would come with challenges and that he should be prepared for unwarranted attacks against him and the office he just won for no other reason than the fact that he now holds it. In short, they would come for him.

We couldn’t help but recall her dire warning over the last several days as Dr. McKenna was made the subject of unfair, unfavorable, and most of all, untrue news reports surrounding the identification of a John Doe.

The unknown man, later identified as Justin Smith, had died of a drug overdose—an unfortunate event that is happening all too often in New Orleans. There were more drug overdoses than there were shooting deaths in the city in 2022.

And while it may be true that Smith’s father’s frantic search for his son included at least one fruitless inquiry at the morgue, although the young man’s unidentified body laid in the Earhart Boulevard facility all along, what was not true in initial mainstream media reports was that Dr. McKenna’s office had failed to ID the body because of mismanagement or dereliction of his duties.

Initial mainstream reports leaned into the notion that the Coroner’s office never requested fingerprints of the unidentified body. But the truth is that McKenna’s office simply refused to discuss the details of any specific case, including Smith’s, with the media. The office did, however, state that it follows accepted practices of identifying unidentified bodies and also informed the inquiring journalists that NOPD is responsible for fingerprint processing. The Coroner’s office also asserted that it has made such a request, but those prints were not processed because of an issue at NOPD.

Let’s get something straight—one cannot fail to do something that he or she is unequipped to do . . . like . . . let’s say . . . make an identification without identifying information. It’s like expecting someone to open a locked door without the keys.

Now here’s where things got interesting. According to those early media reports, although Dr. McKenna’s office asserted that it had followed the protocol for attempting to identify unknown bodies, the initial response from NOPD was that while there was some equipment or facility failure that would have made processing prints impossible at the time, no request to process the John Doe’s fingerprints had been made by the Coroner.

A classic case of he said-he said. Yet, those early news stories and headlines by Daniel Hammer and Ben Myers were purposefully crafted in manner to intentionally malign and disparage the office of Orleans Parish Coroner Dr. Dwight McKenna and his staff.

“New Orleans Coroner fails to ID body, leaving another family searching for a son” The Advocate printed on page 1.

“New Orleans Coroner struggles to properly ID, store dead bodies” WWL reported.

 The early reports also harped on the Coroner’s office refusal to produce “proof” that it had requested that fingerprints be collected.

Look, somebody has to say it, so we will. Perhaps if representatives of these news organizations—so set on trying to paint a false picture of Dr. McKenna’s office not doing its job—would have just done theirs, this whole thing could have been settled before becoming front-page news.  

Identify the information you seek. Make a formal freedom of information request with the proper custodian of the information. Wait and report the facts. Get out of attack mode. Your job is to get it right, not get it fast . . . and it is most certainly not to play malicious games of “gotcha” in an effort to cast aspersion on Black elected officials.

In other words, do better! Check yourselves. Because these so-called investigative reports with zero investigation are becoming a bit ridiculous.

Nonetheless, having grown tired of the negative light in which the office was being cast, Dr. McKenna’s office pointed reporters to verifiable communication that proved that fingerprints had been collected by NOPD at his office’s request back in June. But the prints went unprocessed because of HVAC and/or electrical issues at NOPD or whatever, according to the media reports.

Dr. McKenna’s office demanded an apology and a retraction “with the same fervor and notoriety” of the initial reports that misrepresented the facts of the case.

Here, at The New Orleans Tribune, we suggest that no one over on Earhart holds his or her breath waiting on that apology. These are the same news organizations that have been loath to even refer to Dr. McKenna by name in many of their news reports unless it was a report that criticized him.

And so what his office got in response to its request for a retraction were “updated” stories by both WWL and The Advocate/nola.com, in which the blame was now shifted to NOPD for not being able to process fingerprints that it did in fact collect at the request of the Coroner’s office.

While the updates clarified that the delay in identification was not the Coroner’s fault after all, they also made sure to mention that the Coroner’s office apparently doesn’t have a set of “standard” operating procedures — yet another misrepresentation.

The Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office operates in accordance with the state laws that govern the operation of every other coroner’s office in Louisiana. Does the Orleans Parish Coroner’s Office, under Dr. Dwight McKenna, have its own little pamphlet of rules and regulations? Perhaps it doesn’t. And it didn’t have one under Dr. Jeffery Rouse or Dr. Frank Minyard, who ran it for 40 years, either. And yet, we cannot recall one headline about that . . . ever.

As the initial reports stated, at some point in his relentless attempt to find his son, Justin Smith’s father, reportedly acting on a tip, returned to the Coroner’s office with a photo of him. At which time, officials there were able to confirm that the John Doe at the morgue was indeed Justin. Stated another way, without the fingerprints, the picture was the best identifying information out there; and when it was made available to the Coroner’s office, its staff did not hesitate to use it to bring some closure to the Smith family. Where’s the front-page story in all of that?

The real question is what is it that y’all want from the Coroner or his office – to raise people from the dead?

Well, news flash—Dr. McKenna wears many hats. For full disclosure, he is the executive publisher of the newspaper in which this editorial appears. He is a community leader, an advocate of both art and education, passions that led him to found The McKenna Museums. He is the duly-elected coroner of Orleans Parish and a board certified physician, still dedicated to attending to long-time patients who trust him and his office in the heart of Gentilly.

But he is not the Virgin Mary’s baby boy.

As such, he cannot perform the miracle of identifying any John Doe without clear and accurate information. Sorry.

It is unfortunate that mainstream media used the Smith family’s tragedy in its attempt to disparage the Coroner’s office, which works arduously to fulfill its obligations to the people of New Orleans, in spite of long-standing budget issues and challenges out of its control. 

When he first ran for the office of Coroner of Orleans Parish, Dr. McKenna vowed, if elected, to use his position to not only investigate death, but to bring light to public health concerns so as to help inform and improve the lives of New Orleanians. He has done that with regular, timely updates to the media after deaths have been completely investigated. He has done that with open discussions about mental health, drug overdoses, and the impact of deadly violence in our community among other salient issues. He even pushed his own right to privacy aside, revealing his battle with COVID-19 early in 2020 as the pandemic was just beginning to impact our community to demonstrate just how dangerous the virus could be and to warn fellow New Orleanians to protect themselves and take it seriously.

That mainstream media would lambaste him for not making an ID fast enough when there was literally no information available to him to make an accurate identification is absurd and speaks directly to the unabashed fervor in which some are set in attacking the Office of the Orleans Parish Coroner for no other reason than it is Dr. Dwight McKenna who holds it.

And that needs to be called out . . . and stopped.

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