Agencies push for regional medical examiner’s office to help reduce autopsy backlog

UNION COUNTY, N.C. — Delayed autopsies mean delayed answers for local families. But some are pushing to speed up this process by creating a new medical examiner’s office in our area.

9 Investigates first reported last month that Anson, Cabarrus and Union counties have to send their cases to Raleigh to get the autopsy results. Channel 9’s Genevieve Curtis spent weeks investigating the ripple effect this causes for detectives and families waiting on those results.

If someone dies in Mecklenburg County, the body goes to the medical examiner’s office there. But if someone dies in Union County, investigators have to send their body 2 and a half hours away to Raleigh to a lab with a longer backlog, leaving investigators waiting longer for answers.

On Wednesday, she spoke with top law enforcement officials in Union County who want to see changes.

“It’s frustrating,” said Union County Sheriff’s Office Chief Deputy Tony Underwood. “It’s frustrating to investigators, it’s frustrating to family members.”

UCSO is among the local agencies hoping the state legislature will hear their calls to fix a statewide a backlog in autopsies.

When we spoke to them last month, the state lab pointed to staffing shortages and an increased case load as the reason for the delay. That delay holds up every aspect of the criminal justice system, which is something Union County District Attorney Trey Robison knows firsthand.

“Often times, we are not going to be in a position to make a definitive call on what charges we will be proceeding on until we have a cause of death,” Robison said.

At times, it prolongs an arrest. Earlier this month, after the body of missing Union County mom Alison Thomas was discovered in Jackson County, the case was upgraded to a homicide investigation.

Underwood said there are critical answers they needed from that autopsy.

“How did this individual die? What are we looking for? What type of weapon may have been involved? Are there other injuries to this individual? There are things we need to know,” he said.

He says an autopsy typically takes 48 hours. But in this case, it was just performed Monday -- nine days after she was found.

“Is that acceptable to the standards that you were accustomed to?” Genevieve Curtis asked.

“No, it’s not acceptable,” Underwood said.

To solve the problem, the sheriff’s office has asked local state representatives to fund a regional medical examiner’s office to serve Union, Cabarrus, Anson and potentially other counties.

“And produce a much quicker turnaround and get the same results, and hopefully, provide answers to victims and their families a whole lot quicker,” Underwood said.

Robison believes it should be a priority for the General Assembly to help get criminals off the streets and into a courtroom more quickly.

“It would improve the quality of justice right here in this jurisdiction,” he said.

Curtis also spoke to state Rep. David Willis, who is working on the bill to create a regional medical examiner and toxicology lab in Union County. He was tied up in session but sent a statement saying the concerning backlog has “created a dangerous and disturbing effect on law enforcement’s ability to investigate and solve crimes.”

“Having all of the positions centrally located in Raleigh has proven ineffective and unsustainable,” the statement reads.

Willis said the bill is in its early stages but is already receiving significant support.

Below is the full statement from North Carolina Rep. David Willis:

“There has been a concerning backlog in both the medical examiner’s office and the toxicology lab for years and it has only gotten worse in recent months. This has created a dangerous and disturbing effect on law enforcement’s ability to investigate and solve crimes. To make matters worse, the current employment environment is extremely challenging and has led to a serious shortage of staff and the inability to fill much needed open positions. Having all of the positions centrally located in Raleigh has proven ineffective and unsustainable. I am working with my colleagues on a bill that would create a Regional Medical Examiner and Toxicology Lab that would support Union and the surrounding counties. The bill would reallocate the necessary existing and open positions that we desperately need to Union County where we can more easily fill the positions. The bill is in it’s early stages at this point, but I have been able to garner significant support already and am hopeful that we will have a draft to vote on in the near future. Getting this office up and running as quickly as possible would help our area significantly and help reduce the backlog statewide.”

(WATCH BELOW: Grieving parents push for justice for murdered children in Charlotte)

Comments on this article