Coroner frustrated with long wait time for autopsy reports

Sunday, May 12, 2013 7:33 PM
Last updated Monday, May 13, 2013 12:31 AM
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Four months or more is too long to wait for the complete results of an autopsy of a dead body, said Richmond County Coroner Grover Tuten.

Because of a backlog at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Crime Lab in Atlanta, Tuten said he waits 20 to 26 weeks to get the final report of an autopsy.

“It’s ridiculous. Completely ridiculous,” Tuten said.

The autopsy is performed two to three days after the lab receives the body “99 percent of the time,” the coroner said. The delay results from toxicology and histology tests that take weeks to perform and compile in a report.

“That can be a long, drawn out process,” he said.

Autopsies for most natural deaths are performed locally. The coroner’s office sends to Atlanta bodies from violent deaths when criminal charges are likely, Tuten said.

All bodies of children younger than age 7 require a medical examiner’s inquiry if the death is unexpected or unexplained, according to Georgia law. An examination is also required for deaths in a suspicious or unusual manner for those younger than 17.

The wait time for a report is mostly because the lab has only one toxicologist, Tuten said. A toxicology test involves microscopic evaluations of human tissue.

Those tests can be important when the death is unexplained, and families are left waiting on answers.

Columbia County Coroner Vernon Collins said he forewarns families that a report with the official cause of death takes months to receive. Sometimes, he gets phone calls every few weeks from parents wanting answers.

“It puts us in a bind because we can’t close out cases,” Collins said.

In one case, Tuten has waited about a year for the report on a baby with an unexplained death.

“That mother has waited almost a year for her to find out why her baby died,” Tuten said.

Recently, the mother of an 8-year-old Hephzibah boy who drowned asked the Richmond County Sheriff’s Office to investigate the death, initially ruled as accidental, as a homicide. Jeanette Stevens said the death of her son, Jon, raised too many unanswered questions.

The final autopsy report will not be available until August, when the GBI lab finishes studying the child’s tissue and blood for the presence of drugs.

In another recent case involving the death of toddler Sky Allen, the cause of death was determined within one day. Sky was stabbed in the neck by her mother, Marina Middlebrooks, who was charged May 6 with murder and cruelty to children.

Tuten said autopsies were performed on both children, but written reports were not ready for either child. The only difference was that the cause of death was obvious in the death of the toddler and not for Jon Stevens.

Expediting an autopsy report is highly unusual, Tuten said. It happens occasionally by court order if a case is going to trial quickly, he said.

Collins said the problem could only get worse if the state does not direct more funding to the crime lab.

“I just don’t feel like the money is being channeled to the GBI to hire lab technicians to handle the volume they have,” he said. “This is one agency that they cannot under fund.”

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Little Lamb
Little Lamb 05/13/13 - 09:21 am
Life Insurance

The only thing they need to settle quickly is the life insurance issue. Was it a natural occurrence death or an accidental death or a suicide or a homicide? Okay, toxicological measurements may help to decide that. If the state crime lab is backlogged in their toxicology, then they should have the authority to hire a qualified private lab to help with the backlog. But I guess that would take a state law to move forward.

Is the state crime log backlog Obama's fault because of the sequester?

I'm Back Again
I'm Back Again 05/13/13 - 08:22 am
Fire all RC commissioners,

Fire all RC commissioners, and use those combined incomes to hire another toxicologist. There, problem solved. And I didn't charge RC taxpayers $100,000 for that study.

itsanotherday1 05/13/13 - 11:13 am
"A toxicology test involves

"A toxicology test involves microscopic evaluations of human tissue."

For the record, that statement is not accurate. Toxicology involves chemical analysis of blood and tissue. Histology is the microscopic evaluation of cells.

Austin Rhodes
Austin Rhodes 05/13/13 - 12:00 pm
I have spoken...

...and written extensively on this topic and the need to "super-fund" the crime labs. They should be a first priority. I have had a family member and a childhood best friend who died under unusual circumstances, suddenly, and the wait for specific autopsy information was maddening. Kudos to the local coroners who are doing all they can under trying circumstances, but there really is NO excuse for not making these functions of public safety a top priority...

Riverman1 05/13/13 - 03:14 pm
It is extremely expensive to

It is extremely expensive to operate a certified lab with a pathologist. You needs all kinds of high priced personnel and loads of equipment that is difficult to maintain. An uncertified lab's results wouldn't stand up in court.

itsanotherday1 05/13/13 - 06:35 pm
River, that was what I

River, that was what I alluded to the other day when bouncing this around with LL. We all saw how the defense picked apart the forensics in the OJ Simpson trial; and I can guarandarntee you all but a very, very few labs want any part of that.

That said, if the price was right, you might find a couple of the mega-reference labs that would tool up for it, but they would need to have more than just Georgia sending them specimens for toxicology. Even then, because of chain of custody issues, transporation by private entities etc.; I think defense attorneys would be licking their chops at the prospect of having more points to pick at.

butterflygina 05/13/13 - 08:23 pm
One lab toxicologist

Did I read correctly that the GBI's Crime Lab only has one toxicologist? Does the governor know this? This is insane. Well at least the results are slow lest we have an Annie Dookhan on our hands...

Riverman1 05/13/13 - 10:48 pm
IAD, Yep, I've Written About This Previously, Too

An autopsy requires a pathologist, an MD. The lab also requires certified, well paid technicians with compliance people and so on. The equipment is maintenance intensive and expensive. Trust me, that's why states only have one or two of these things. We are talking millions of dollars.

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