Moultrie -- When a death is ruled suspicious, it's only the beginning of an investigation process, one that relies heavily on the findings gathered by a medical examiner. But finding a medical examiner to fill a vacant position in the region has gone on now for almost a year.
In the state of Georgia, autopsy requests in most counties are handled by GBI Crime Labs in Atlanta, Macon, Savannah or Augusta. The GBI Crime Lab in Moultrie previously made that list. The office handled autopsy requests for 24 south Georgia counties. But in June of 2007, those requests had to be sent elsewhere when the counties it served were re-zoned after the medical examiner resigned from his position.
"I'm going to say 6 to 10 (autopsy requests) a year from this office. Which means 6 to 10 days that someone is going to be out carrying that body, transporting that body to the crime lab," says Turner County Coroner Edgar Perry.
Perry's office is not faced with an overwhelming number of suspicious or violent deaths each year, but serves one of the two dozen south Georgia counties that must now send autopsy requests to crime labs in Atlanta, Macon or Savannah because of the medical examiner vacancy in Moultrie.
He says, "Moultrie desperately needs a pathologist. It worked very well with Moultrie. Dr. Clark was very willing to work and they were working on weekends. It made it a lot easier."
But when Dr. Anthony Clark resigned from his position as medical examiner for the GBI Crime Lab in Moultrie last June, autopsy requests from Turner County were sent to Macon, more than 80 miles away. And in Dougherty County, bodies are transported almost 180 miles to the GBI medical examiner's headquarters in Decatur, Georgia. It's a process that's placing strains on the budgets allotted to many county coroners in the region who must pay transport services to carry bodies to and from the assigned crime labs.
Dougherty County Coroner Emma Quimbley says, "Before the gas prices went up, it was only $125 for Moultrie. After the gas prices went up, it's costing me $600 round trip per person to go to Atlanta."
That's $600 round trip for the county that has more autopsy requests than any other in the region. And while we've heard no complaints about major delays in getting autopsy results back from the crime labs, just having a medical examiner serving southwest Georgia seems crucial for more reasons than just convenience.
"We desperately need to get that Moultrie lab back up and running. Whether it's with the legislature pouring more funds to hire these pathologists, that would certainly be an asset," says Perry.
Dr. Kris Sperry, chief medical examiner for the state of Georgia, says filling this position is very important, but finding a qualified and experienced pathologist can be a long process.