MUSCOGEE COUNTY, Ga. (WRBL)— Columbus has seen an uptick in violent crime over the last few weeks including several deadly shootings.
Closure and justice for the victims is a long process made even longer by delays at the state crime lab in Atlanta. Muscogee County Coroner Buddy Bryan describes the recent timeline he has seen when calling in an autopsy to the GBI Medical Examiner’s Office.
“I took two bodies up there about three weeks ago that we had had in our morgue for ten days. One of them was 28 on the list, the other was 45 on the list, which is not good because that adds another ten days to two weeks. Virtually what we’re looking at, if somebody died on the 1st of September, it could be almost the end of September before the bodies return back to the funeral,” Bryan says.
He says the delay affects three different aspects; the family’s closure, the funeral home’s ability to make arrangements, and decomposition of the body. With the extended waiting time for an autopsy, the body can progress into advanced stages of decomposition which Bryan says could cause more grief for the family during their closure process.
“When I was first elected and for the first eight years, I could go out on a scene at 3:00 in the morning and call it in at seven and get out my forensic driver on the way to Atlanta at 8:00. Now we call it in and we have to wait for them to have a table available. Sometimes that’s ten days to two weeks before we can get to take the body up there. Once we get the body up there, it can be on the list. It could be number 28 on the list, 30, 40, 45 on the list,” Bryan explains.
The GBI opened its doors to numerous media outlets Tuesday, Aug. 16 as apart of their annual GBI Media Day. Interim Director John Melvin responded to WRBL’s questions about the backlog in autopsies that is directly affecting Muscogee County.
Melvin cited three key components adding to the growing demands for an autopsy. One, there is a nationwide shortage of doctors entering the profession as a certified forensic pathologist.
“Entry into the field is as an all time low. Students graduating medical school are at an all time low of saying, ‘Hey, I want to go into forensic pathology,'” Melvin says, “We are actively competing against not Cobb [County] and not DeKalb [County] anymore, we’re actively competing against New York, Chicago and other areas.”
Two, the nationwide rise in crime means more bodies requiring an autopsy.
“Over the weekend we had almost 100 bodies come into the crime lab and to be able to do the exacting science that we need to do of all types, seeing them and figuring out the cause of death. It takes time, and that has led to some backlogs,” Melvin acknowledges.
Three, two thirds of the autopsies being performed now are overdose deaths, something Melvin attributes to the fentanyl crisis Georgia is experiencing.
“I can tell you it’s directly attributable. I mean, two thirds of our autopsies are overdose deaths, and those are on a steep increase because of the fentanyl crisis that the state of Georgia is experiencing. I am not personally aware of any particular region being worse than any other particular region, it is a statewide issue,” he says.
Despite the shortage of doctors and influx of bodies requiring autopsies, Melvin says they are actively working on recruitment and retention to combat the backlog.
“Fortunately, the legislature and the governor have helped us to match the pay scale but even at a matching pay scale, we only have one third of the supply of doctors across the state. Here at the crime lab, we have 14 doctors right now. We’re actively recruiting,” Melvin asserts, “We are vehemently working with our governor, with our legislature, to be able to address.”
The legislature Melvin is referring to is Georgia’s 2023 fiscal budget Governor Brian Kemp signed into law back in May of this year. It will allocate more than $10.3 million to expand the GBI Medical Examiner’s Office to compete with other offices across the nation.