South Jersey autopsies by a former pathologist under review

Sean Dalton, Gloucester County prosecutor
Sean Dalton, Gloucester County prosecutor
Posted: July 11, 2014

The Attorney General's Office has advised South Jersey prosecutors to review all autopsies conducted by a former state pathologist who had been barred from practicing medicine in New Mexico.

Hisham Hashish, 52, started work as an assistant medical examiner for South Jersey less than two months after he surrendered his medical license in New Mexico in 2011. He was barred from doing autopsies and practicing medicine there based on allegations of negligence, according to records reviewed by The Inquirer.

Attempts to reach Hashish this week were unsuccessful.

Hashish was hired May 23, 2011, to perform autopsies in Camden, Gloucester, Atlantic, Cape May, Cumberland, and Salem Counties. He resigned Feb. 18.

In Camden County, 10 autopsies conducted by Hashish are under review, including one controversial ruling, said Jason Laughlin, spokesman for the Camden County Prosecutor's Office. In Gloucester County, Hashish did an autopsy in at least one criminal case. Atlantic County declined to comment.

After New Mexico's action, other states - including Nebraska, Michigan, and New York - also took measures to revoke Hashish's privileges, according to public records.

New Jersey authorities did not learn about a problem with Hashish's credentials until this year, said Paul Loriquet, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, which oversees the state's medical examiners.

"This problem with Hashish may be indicative of a bigger matter of how medical examiners are structured in New Jersey," said Gloucester County Prosecutor Sean Dalton, who called the state's system "fragmented and unregulated."

"Unlike other medical-examiner systems in other states, where there is accountability, there is no accountability in New Jersey," said Dalton, who also sits on a state board that reviews all child fatalities.

South Jersey prosecutors in counties where Hashish performed autopsies were instructed to disclose to defense attorneys that he was prohibited from practicing in other states, Loriquet confirmed Tuesday.

Saying personnel matters are confidential, Loriquet declined to answer specific questions regarding Hashish's hiring and resignation. Loriquet, who said he believed Hashish still had a license to practice medicine in New Jersey, did not know how many autopsies Hashish had conducted or whether his work had an adverse impact on any criminal cases.

However, one law enforcement source said it was the Attorney General's Office that identified the autopsies that Hashish conducted within that county.

By 2010, Hashish had come under investigation in New Mexico. The following year, he entered into a consent decree in which he surrendered his medical license.

According to documentation by the New Mexico Medical Board, Hashish was permanently barred from practicing "based on, but not limited to, repeated similar negligent acts and failure to report adverse action taken on his clinical privileges."

Debbie Dieterich, the compliance officer for the New Mexico Medical Board, said the consent decree prohibited her from discussing the detailed allegations against Hashish. Once board members act, she said, they are required to send the information within 30 days to a national database.

"It's very difficult for doctors to move around from state to state," Dieterich said. When one state takes action, there is a "domino effect" in other states. "We had sufficient evidence in this case to take action, and he agreed to surrender his license."

Loriquet said that when Hashish applied and was offered the $150,000 position in New Jersey on Jan. 15, 2011, he had not yet surrendered his New Mexico license, and he did not disclose any problems. Loriquet said he could not discuss how the state learned there was a problem with Hashish's credentials.

Capt. Jack Sramaty of the Ocean County Prosecutor's Office said Hashish inquired about doing autopsies there about two months ago, but he did not have medical privileges at the hospital where autopsies were performed.

Last year in Camden County, Hashish conducted an autopsy in a case in which the manner of death remained undetermined.

Rodney Terry, 47, of Williamstown, was arrested by Lawnside police after a resident reported he was throwing rocks at a house and screaming, according to police accounts at the time. Police said Terry was incoherent and appeared to be under the influence of drugs. He was handcuffed and placed in a police cruiser, and then stopped breathing as the officers were transporting him to Kennedy University Hospital, Stratford, police said.

Legal sources said Hashish preliminarily indicated he would rule the death a homicide because Terry was in police custody.

Charles Schlager, a Mount Laurel lawyer who provides legal protection for police officers, said there was a concern when Hashish suggested the death was a homicide. "With my knowledge of the facts of what took place," Schlager said, "I don't think it was a homicide."

Drug overdoses are typically ruled accidental or suicides. A death caused by disease is considered a natural death. A homicide is a death caused by another person.

Laughlin said the Prosecutor's Office headed the investigation and found no evidence of foul play. According to Hashish's autopsy report, Terry died of the toxic effect of cocaine and hypertensive cardiovascular disease. The manner remains undetermined.

Dalton said Hashish handled at least one autopsy in Gloucester County that included criminal charges, but he declined to discuss it. His office, he said, also is reviewing whether Hashish was involved in any cases with questions regarding cause of death.

While Hashish was under investigation in New Mexico, he had a pathology fellowship with the Allegheny County (Pa.) Coroner's Office, according to a medical profile online. He earned $4,908 a month and left the office at the end of the fellowship in December, said Amie Downs, an Allegheny County spokesman.

The next month, New Jersey offered him the South Jersey post. Gerald Feigin, the chief medical examiner for Camden, Gloucester, and Salem Counties, said the matter in New Mexico involved a medical practice, not Hashish's work as a medical examiner.

"He was very thorough," Feigin said. "Personally, I liked him."

According to the online profile, Hashish graduated from Zagazig University Faculty of Medicine in Egypt in 1985. He did an anatomical and clinical pathology residency at Creighton University in Nebraska from 1999 to 2004. He was a licensed practitioner in several states, including New Jersey.

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