Dr. Donald Reay left a long legacy, overseeing more than 5,000 autopsies, making the office one of the first to identify a victim using genetic fingerprinting, and training other medical examiners.
The way Dr. Donald Reay saw it, he offered the last chance to tell someone’s story — at least the final chapter.
Over more than two decades as King County chief medical examiner, Dr. Reay maintained he was “the last line,” said his son, Sean. “He thought of his responsibility as the last person who could tell somebody’s story.”
Dr. Reay, who taught a generation of death examiners and homicide detectives the nuances of forensic sciences, died at his home in Oak Harbor on Nov. 10. He was 81.
“I’m not a witness for the defense or for the prosecution,” Dr. Reay said when he retired. “I am a witness for the dead. I’m the one person who can say anything about that person’s last minutes on Earth.”
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At King County, Dr. Reay left a long legacy, overseeing more than 5,000 autopsies, making the office one of the first to identify a victim using genetic fingerprinting, and training other medical examiners. He was named chief medical examiner in 1975 and retired in 1999.
“He taught a whole generation of prosecutors and police, defense attorneys and judges what it was to be really professional and to care about science … to be balanced and nonbiased when you were conducting an investigation,” said Becky Roe, who worked as a senior King County prosecutor while Dr. Reay was medical examiner.
Roe said Dr. Reay was known to go to crime scenes himself, building strong relationships with investigators. When she once told Dr. Reay she didn’t know how he did such difficult and sometimes gruesome work, she remembers his response was “matter of fact.”
“He felt he was given a gift of opportunity to make sure a human being’s transition from this world to the next was handled in a respectful way,” Roe said.
Dr. Reay’s daughter, Elise, credits that sensibility to his strong Catholic faith. “He was always looking for the truth and for closure for the people who were killed,” she said. “He always wanted to know the answer so that maybe they could move forward.”
In the courtroom, Dr. Reay was straightforward and unwilling to entertain hypotheticals from any side, said Mark Larson, chief deputy of the criminal division at the King County Prosecutor’s Office. Dr. Reay was gruff and nearly “uncrossexaminable,” Larson said.
“He wasn’t drawn into the advocacy that was swirling around him from defense lawyers and prosecutors,” Larson said. “He was a man of science.”
Born in Wyoming, Dr. Reay spent several years working in mines. Feeling like he “needed to do something more,” he sought out medicine, Elise said.
Dr. Reay also taught at the University of Washington Department of Pathology, held leadership roles in industry groups, and served in the U.S. Army Reserve, including in 1990 when his unit was activated for Desert Storm. In retirement, he fished, played handball and kept a close eye on the Seahawks.
In 2015 — 16 years after he’d retired from the Medical Examiner’s Office — his work there was still earning acclaim. He received the prestigious Milton Helpern Laureate Award, an honor that had only been awarded 10 times since its creation in 1991. Dr. Reay told The Seattle Times he was “surprised and pleased.”
“I thought if it were to come it would have come sooner,” he said.
He is survived by his wife of more than 55 years, four children and five grandchildren.
Information from The Seattle Times archives was used in this report.