Alumni Profiles

Marcella Fierro

Compassionate medical examiner solves pathology puzzles in the cause of justice

Marcella Fierro

Fierro close-up
UB degree: MD ’66; Undergraduate degree: D’Youville College; Number of women in her med school class: four; Memorable UB mentor: the late Ellen Eckstein Rudinger, medical school faculty (Photo by Scott Suchman)

Ask Marcella Fierro what she thinks of CSI and she’s more likely to roll her eyes than rehash the latest episode.

“I don’t watch it because I don’t want to become aggravated,” says Fierro, chief medical examiner for the Commonwealth of Virginia. “I don’t like to see our secrets revealed at all. We’re counting on bad guys to make a mistake, and when you tell them how not to make a mistake, that’s self-defeating.”

In the job she has held since 1994, Fierro oversees the medical investigations of all sudden, violent and unexpected deaths in the state. Rarely, she says, do they play out like a TV series.

“The dramatic case that you write books about or you see on CSI that is convoluted is not the usual state of affairs. We see a lot of homicides, and a lot of them are just plain dumb. People get drunk and they shoot one another, or a drug deal goes bad. Most deaths we investigate are not dramatic. They are tragic, but they are not dramatic.”

A 1966 graduate of UB School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Fierro was drawn to forensic pathology decades before it was appropriated by pop culture. During her pathology residency at the Cleveland Clinic, she visited the Cuyahoga County Coroner’s Office. Soon, she would drop by whenever she had a chance. After completing a fellowship in forensic pathology and legal medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University, she knew she’d found the match for both her intellect and her temperament.

“Most people who go into forensics have a strong sense of justice. They like to see things right,” Fierro says, explaining its appeal. “And they like to solve puzzles. There’s a degree of doggedness in people who do forensics. They hang on like bulldogs until they get it figured out.”

In 1975, Fierro received her certification in forensic pathology, only the ninth woman in the country to achieve that distinction. Soon after, she was hired as deputy chief medical examiner for Central Virginia, a position she would hold until 1992, when she accepted the position of pathology professor at East Carolina University School of Medicine. In 1994, she returned to Virginia as chief.

Working in a male-dominated milieu over the years, Fierro raised some eyebrows but never experienced overt sexism. “I think the most astounded people were the police because they were not used to working with women. But the police are the same as everybody—you have to prove to them that you know what you’re doing. That didn’t take too long.”

Throughout her high-profile career Fierro has worked on several newsworthy cases, including the Southside Strangler homicides and, most recently, the Virginia Tech shooting rampage.

With every death she examines—whether headline maker or not—she makes sure she balances her medical acumen with equal parts compassion. “Anybody in the health sciences who has to deal with shattered or grieving families has to have a part of himself that’s willing to be empathetic—and to suffer the consequence of being empathetic.

“The upside is that you’re actually in a position to help. When something bad happens to somebody, most people can feel sorry for them, but they can’t do anything for them. We can by answering a lot of questions for those families, and they feel a whole lot better because we give them that information. For those families that have experienced a violent death we help make the justice system work.”

Perhaps it’s Fierro’s ability to deftly handle both the science of forensic pathology and the profession’s requisite sensitivity that made such an impression on Patricia Cornwell. The author—who worked as a computer analyst in Fierro’s office during the 1980s—is reported to have modeled the protagonist of her bestselling crime novels, Dr. Kay Scarpetta, on Fierro.

Does the real life medical examiner follow the exploits of her literary counterpart? “Oh, sure,” she says. “I’m a thriller reader. I read thrillers like people eat popcorn. I don’t remember the title or the author. I just consume them.”

Story by Nicole Peradotto

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