Closings increase caseload

Tina Scoggins said she'll never forget the day she awoke to find her husband of 15 years not breathing.

"It was shocking, and I still can't get over it," she said of the death of 43-year-old Stephen Scoggins.

Now, Mrs. Scoggins and others have encountered problems with death certificates. Official death certificates are being delayed by weeks, and sometimes months, making it difficult for family members to process life insurance or Social Security benefits.

In Mrs. Scoggins' case, it has been more than two months, and as of last week the certificate was still pending.

"Even if I give a death certificate and it says 'pending autopsy results' ... the insurance won't pay off on it," Richmond County Coroner Grover Tuten said.

The problem locally is that the Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Augusta Crime Lab has now taken on cases from five more counties -- the result of state labs being closed in Summerville, Columbus and Moultrie, Mr. Tuten said. There are now 19 counties being handled by the Augusta lab, he said.

Although autopsies aren't being affected, delays are being seen with toxicology and blood tests that follow in cases where the autopsy doesn't find an obvious cause of death.

In Richmond County, Mr. Tuten said, such test results have been taking an average of 12 weeks, but some have been delayed as long as 25 weeks. Before the state cuts, Mr. Tuten said such test results took about four or five weeks.

He said the Augusta lab is doing all it can, but the added caseload is a challenge.

Columbia County Coroner Vernon Collins said he has had some cases take as long as three months, adding that the wait could grow to as long as a half-year.

"They don't have enough histologists," he said. "I guess they're just overwhelmed and the government is just cutting money back. It's not going to make it any better. It's going to make it worse."

In a recent e-mail from the Georgia's Coroners Association, director Ted Bearden expressed concerns from coroners statewide about the closing of GBI forensic and medical examiner locations.

"Coroners in Georgia are elected to serve the people in their communities, and this will place an additional hardship on them to perform their duties while maintaining dignity and respect of the families involved," he said.

But GBI spokesman John Bankhead said the situation is not as dire as it might appear.

"It's not really a crisis. At least it shouldn't be," he said. "The cuts are mostly impacting labs in Moultrie and Summerville. Nothing has changed in respect to autopsies."

Mr. Bankhead said the budget cuts are being made because of a state revenue shortfall that he described as "the worst I've ever seen."

Mr. Tuten said another result of the added demands on the Augusta Crime Lab is that justice in some criminal cases might be delayed.

"That's slowing down DUI cases," he said. "He can't be prosecuted until we do toxicology and get those results back. The victims are held up, and the criminal justice system is slowed down."

In South Carolina, budget cuts have not trickled down to the county coroner's office in Aiken County. If cuts to the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division have delayed lab-test results, Aiken County Coroner Tim Carlton said, his office hasn't seen it.

"Ours have always been slow, so it's not something we'd probably even notice," he said. "As far as us doing business, it hasn't affected us."

Morris News Service contributed to this article.

Reach Preston Sparks at (706) 823-3338 or preston.sparks@augustachronicle.com.