‘Mercy of the state’: Delays on autopsies at medical examiner’s office stall unsolved cases

CHARLOTTE — Families are left without answers and unsolved cases are at a standstill -- and it’s all because of delays at the medical examiner’s office when it comes to completing autopsies.

Investigators said they can’t make arrests and their hands are tied.

“They have this case sitting on their dashboard and knowing there are potential charges coming from it,” said Kannapolis Police Department Lt. James M. Livengood. “But we’re just sitting here spinning our wheels because there is nothing we can do.”

“Do you worry that there are people who should be locked up right now?” Channel 9′s Genevieve Curtis asked Livengood.

“Yes,” Livengood said.

Last June, every law enforcement agency in Union, Cabarrus and Anson counties learned that anytime there was a homicide, overdose, or suspicious or unattended death, they would have to start sending the autopsies to of the North Carolina Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Raleigh.

The three counties previously used the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner’s Office, but that has changed.

Investigators are now experiencing a backlog like never before.

The clock begins for investigators when someone dies under potentially criminal circumstances.

Each piece of evidence helps solve a case and oftentimes, the final, critical clues about someone’s last moments come from the autopsy performed by the medical examiner’s office.

“Especially if we aren’t certain on how someone passed,” said Lt. Steve Morton, with the Monroe Police Department. “Was it a true homicide? Was it a natural death? Was it an overdose? There are so many different ways this can go.”

Investigators, including Morton, said those answers are coming slower nowadays after a shakeup at the medical examiner’s office.

“It’s been a challenge for everybody,” Morton said. “Right now, I would say we are at the mercy of the state.”

Anson, Cabarrus, and Union counties must use the office in Raleigh, which also serves 39 other counties.

Mecklenburg County’s medical examiner said in a statement, “As the population of Mecklenburg County and outlying counties increases, so do the autopsies. Our first priority is to the citizens of Mecklenburg County and as such, the decision was made to release three of the regional counties back to the N.C. Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.”

However, delays at the state have led to a backlog for investigators.

“It prolongs everything,” Livengood said. “It means if there are potential charges that can come from waiting on the official autopsy report, we can’t do that.”

Livengood said it usually took about a month for final reports from the Mecklenburg County Medical Examiner’s Office.

“Now we’re looking at a death we had in July of last year. We’re sitting on six months, and we don’t have any reports yet,” he said.

The lieutenant is referring to a case involving an autopsy of a toddler.

Investigators need the medical examiner to determine how the child died.

Livengood said his team has at least four cases that they can’t close and it’s frustrating.

Investigators are worried there are people who should be locked up but aren’t because they haven’t gotten autopsies back.

The delays could compromise cases, investigators said.

“It is critical,” Morton said. “The longer it takes, the more we are losing. The more evidence we are going to lose.”

Morton said Monroe police discovered a body in July and they are waiting on an autopsy report to see if it turns into a homicide.

Detectives could be behind in the case if the autopsy results indicate a homicide did happen.

“We are definitely behind,” Morton said. “We are behind the eight-ball, most certainly, if it comes back as a homicide then we are.”

And there would be a lot of catching up to do in the case, Morton added.

State health officials acknowledged the change has added staffing issues and caseloads in Raleigh.

The state medical examiner’s office said it has seen a 30% increase in autopsies as they try to complete them in three days.

‘I want some closure’

The Kurtz family is waiting for answers in an open case.

“I mean, the longer we keep this open, the more chaos she’s out there committing, destroying our lives,” said Tony Kurtz, who believes his father was killed. “We have no closure.”

Kurtz said court dates repeatedly get postponed.

“It’s insane, and I’m just waiting for her to go to jail,” he said.

Kurtz said the case is waiting on autopsy results.

“But if (the autopsy results) would come back, maybe we could get some kind of a closure with this and find out what really happened to my dad,” Kurtz said.

Investigators discovered Jim Kurtz’s body in November inside his lake home in Rowan County.

They said he’d been dead for several days.

His girlfriend was found living in the home with his body. She was arrested on felony charges of failing to report a death.

The death is classified as suspicious, and a search warrant shows a pill was found in Jim Kurtz’s mouth.

“That’s another thing I’m concerned about,” the son said. “That she is overdosing (people). That she’s starving to death. I mean, what happened? What happened to my father, you know?”

Investigators are waiting for the autopsy report from Raleigh to determine if the death was a homicide.

Kurtz and his mother want answers and accountability.

“In my entire life, I have never met anybody as wicked as this woman is,” Linda Kurtz said.

“It’s anger,” Tony Kurtz said. “Yeah, you know, I want some closure. I want something done about this. It’s unbelievable how much you go through when someone passes away. And then you stick this chaos in, and you know, murder and investigation and autopsies involved in it. It’s unbearable. And we’re just sitting here in limbo like, you know, what do we do?”

The opioid epidemic is also contributing to this backlog.

Autopsies for suspected overdose deaths increased by 58% in 2022 compared to 2019.

“Each patient treated through the N.C. Medical Examiner System has a unique story and loved ones who are in search of answers regarding their passing,” said a spokesperson in a statement. “The N.C. Medical Examiner System is committed to performing thorough medicolegal death investigations in each case that comes through our system.”

(WATCH BELOW: Courts face backlogs due to COVID-19 shutdowns as families wait for justice)

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