Dr. Brian Peterson sees deaths of all kinds and causes.
On one day, Milwaukee County’s chief medical examiner may dig around in a young man’s chest in search of the bullets that killed him. On another, he’ll inspect the organs of an elderly woman to learn which ailment ended her life. Or he might meticulously pore over the body of a car accident victim to find the fatal fracture.
The medical examiner’s office investigates about two-thirds of the nearly 10,000 deaths in Milwaukee County each year. Peterson and his team conduct about 1,200 autopsies annually to confirm or determine cause of death or to retrieve criminal evidence, such as bullets, from a body.
It’s grim work, and there’s been a lot of it lately. The 189 homicides last year in the city of Milwaukee shattered the previous record set in 1991, the same year Jeffrey Dahmer was apprehended. And so far for 2021, the city is already far ahead of last year’s record-breaking pace.
Also causing great concern – and grief – for Peterson is the explosion of drug overdose deaths his office sees. In 2020, his office saw more than 540 overdose deaths – almost double the number from 2018 and about a third of all autopsies the medical examiner conducted for Milwaukee County.
There were so many homicides and overdoses last summer, Peterson had to use a refrigerated truck to store the bodies because he ran out of room in the morgue. “And it’ll be similar to that this year,” he adds.
At times, the drug-related deaths can be particularly challenging for Peterson because he lost his own son to an overdose a few years ago. “I have to do what I do every day despite having gone through that,” he says.
And then, of course, there’s also been the pandemic. Peterson says they haven’t been too overloaded by COVID-19 deaths, but it has added complications and stress. “Somebody will come in and they’ve overdosed, but they happen to have COVID. Or, you can have COVID and be shot,” he says. Peterson makes a point to review and sign each coronavirus-caused death certificate himself – as of mid-June, more than 1,100 of them.
Peterson, who earned an M.D. from Medical College of Wisconsin in 1980, has led the county’s medical examiner’s office since 2010, following similar work in California and earlier stints as a medical officer in both the Navy and Marines. “I was drawn to working with my hands,” says Peterson, noting that he also plays the violin. “What I figured out was that I liked pathology a lot, [and] part of pathology is doing autopsies.”
In addition to the administrative functions of the job – he oversees some 30 other employees and a $5 million budget (which he says is about $350,000 short of what he needs) – Peterson also testifies in court and occasionally answers calls from irate family members of the deceased.
But his day-to-day work still includes plenty of gruesome details. He calls the forensic nature of the job “intellectually fascinating,” but he is human and needs to manage all of that. “Number one, I’m pretty good at intellectualizing things and putting them into compartments. Number two, I really have an overdeveloped sense of humor. Just ask anybody here – there are a lot of dad jokes on my part. Number three, I’m a very devout orthodox Lutheran Church Missouri Synod Christian,” he says. “I always joke that my patients have passed the final exam that I have yet to take. So I’m pretty comfortable with death just because of that.”
A major goal ahead of Peterson is to upgrade the medical examiner’s cramped and outdated headquarters on the corner of Ninth and Highland. A new, state-of-the-art teaching and medical facility in Wauwatosa is undergoing planning with the county, Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin. “The dream is that it will hold us, it will hold the county emergency operations, perhaps the state crime lab, a couple of businesses like a tissue bank [and also] the MATC funeral science program – all in a nice five- or six-story building,” he says.
Then, after almost a dozen years as the chief medical examiner and some 65 years on the planet, Peterson says he’ll probably be ready for retirement.
“Mine is a profession where gray hair matters. The more you’ve seen, the better you can be at it,” he says. “As long as you don’t lose your grip.”
Why Couldn’t He Breathe?
EARLIER THIS SPRING, Dr. Brian Peterson made some waves and a few headlines when he was retained as a paid forensic expert for the criminal defense team of Derek Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer charged with – and ultimately found guilty of – murdering George Floyd.
A few found this moonlighting by Peterson, who did not testify at the Chauvin trial, controversial, but he stands behind the decision. “The most reviled, hated person … still deserves a defense, doesn’t he?” Peterson says.
He believes a number of factors went into Floyd’s death, including drug use and cancer, and that Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes was not the sole cause of death.
Floyd uttered what would soon be chanted across the country – “I can’t breathe” – in his car before police became involved, Peterson says. “I think what you saw there was kind of an overdose happening in somebody who was medically vulnerable,” he says. Floyd “had a bad heart, too. He also had COVID, and he also had a previously unknown tumor. So the deck was kind of stacked.
“Now, having said that, he did die subsequent to police interaction. And conventionally … I would have no problem calling that a homicide because he’s struggling with the police,” he continues. “It’s ‘death at the hands of another.’ But that’s different than murder.”
The jury, after seeing the entirety of the evidence against Chauvin, disagreed.