Coroner frustrated with long wait time for autopsy reports

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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