After 3 years, Honolulu Mayor picks new Chief Medical Examiner

Photo courtesy: City and County of Honolulu
Photo courtesy: City and County of Honolulu

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Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell has appointed Dr. Christopher Happy as the new Chief Medical Examiner.

The city has unsuccessfully tried to fill that position for the past three and a half years, struggling to find qualified applicants.

As the mayor puts it, there aren’t that many nationally certified medical examiners in the country and so they can demand top dollar.

“This is an office that does a lot, and this is a much-needed service that most people are unaware of,” Caldwell said.

Whenever there’s an unattended death, whether it’s a suspected murder or even if someone passes away while at home alone, the City Medical Examiner’s Office is called out to the scene.

Police depend on the ME’s findings for their own investigations.

“This year we estimate to perform almost 500 autopsies.  That’s quite a bit,” Caldwell said.

The Honolulu ME Department has been without a leader since November 2009 when Dr. Kanthi De Alwis retired as Chief Medical Examiner.

“So when Dr. Kanthi retired from the day-to-day operations, we lost our accreditation and we wanted to get it back,” Caldwell said.

Dr. Happy would become the fourth doctor to do autopsies on all the bodies that come into the city morgue.

“So we are handling the volume. It’s just that we’re going to have a new Medical Examiner, and this person is accredited.  I think that probably helps when you go to court. Of course the prosecutor, if there’s a murder or something like that, would like the fact that an autopsy is performed and certified by someone who is nationally certified,” Caldwell said.

The mayor made it a priority to fill the position when he took office earlier this year.

The city raised the salary from $200,000 to $250,000 after the Salary Commission granted the proposed increase.

“So I think it did help, raising the pay,” Caldwell said.

Dr. Happy is currently working as a Consulting Forensic Pathologist in Northern California.

His past experience includes Assistant Medical Examiner at the San Francisco Medical Examiner’s Office; serving as the Chief Medical Examiner in the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office; Assistant Medical Examiner at the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner Coroner’s Office; and City Medical Examiner in the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner of the City of New York.

But KHON2 also learned, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, that Dr. Happy resigned from his position as the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner in 2008, after working there for only 20 months.  He had been making $255,000 a year.

According The Examiner, a publication by the Wisconsin Coroners and Medical Examiners Association: “Though initially Dr. Happy cited personal reasons for his resignation, he later acknowledged strained relationships within the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office.”

But Mayor Caldwell paints a different picture of Dr. Happy.  He personally interviewed him.

“Very engaging. He has strong people skills,” Caldwell said.

Dr. Happy still has to get his Hawaii medical license before he can start working here and that should take a few months.

Just like all of the other cabinet appointments, the Honolulu City Council still has to confirm Dr. Happy’s appointment.

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