Originally created 11/28/01

Funding hinders crime morgue

A high-dollar morgue under construction in Augusta's new $4.1 million crime lab will sit unused when it opens next year because the state doesn't have money to staff it, officials said Tuesday.

Law enforcement from 15 counties will continue to transport bodies to Atlanta for autopsy until Georgia legislators find the money for a medical examiner to work in the 2,500-square-foot morgue on Phinizy Road, said Dan Kirk, the chief of facilities and support operations for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

The Eastern Regional Crime Laboratory is expected to open in summer, replacing the cramped quarters on Eighth Street currently used by 11 GBI employees.

The old lab was built in the 1970s with 8,000 square feet, Mr. Kirk said.

"You basically have people sitting on top of each other," he said. "People are doing DNA (testing) in a facility that wasn't designed for DNA."

The new facility, in front of the Phinizy Road jail, has 17,000 square feet, including the morgue, laboratory, conference room, garage and several offices for the lab manager, scientists, assistants and support staff.

GBI officials will get better equipment to identify drugs confiscated on the street, analyze fire debris in arson cases, determine the alcohol content of a driver's blood, conduct DNA testing and match bullets from crime scenes to confiscated guns.

But the morgue will remain vacant without staff to run it, Mr. Kirk said.

Use of the morgue to conduct autopsies is a long-term goal and having it already built will make it easier to ask for the position later, he said.

Autopsies are usually conducted in homicide cases and suspicious deaths.

This week, the Richmond County Sheriff's Office required an autopsy of a 45-year-old woman who was discovered dead by her live-in boyfriend. The cause of death was not apparent, leading investigators to send her body to the Atlanta lab for autopsy.

"A lot of the cases, we would have the case agent or crime scene tech witness the autopsy so they can consult with the pathologist before, during and after the autopsy," said sheriff's Maj. Ken Autry. "If that was done here in Augusta, we wouldn't have to send our guys to Atlanta."

It is the same for 14 other counties who could use the Augusta morgue. The Eastern Regional Crime Lab will serve law enforcement officials in Burke, Columbia, Elbert, Emanuel, Glascock, Hancock, Jefferson, Johnson, Lincoln, McDuffie, Richmond, Taliaferro, Warren, Washington and Wilkes counties.

Mr. Kirk said a medical examiner position will have to be pursued by GBI administrators or by the local legislative delegation.

"But the way the budget is right now, we can't hire anybody," he said.

State funding shortages have caused problems before for crime-fighting efforts in Georgia.

Three years ago, the Georgia forensic lab in Decatur was so backlogged some prosecutors had to consider dropping criminal charges. A $50 million funding boost has the lab running at top speed and helps pay for several new facilities, including the one in Augusta.

Still, the GBI is planning a hiring freeze and stopping some tests altogether because the state's revenues are falling.

To save $1.6 million, the GBI is offering to eliminate 18 unfilled slots for scientists and technicians in the toxicology and firearms areas.

Associated Press reports were used in this article.

Reach Greg Rickabaugh at (706) 828-3851 or greg.rickabaugh@augustachronicle.com.


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