Special Report: Too Many Bodies

Chief GBI Medical Examiner Dr. Kris Sperry
Chief GBI Medical Examiner Dr. Kris Sperry
This skull being examined has an obvious hole in he cranium
This skull being examined has an obvious hole in he cranium

Anytime someone in Georgia is murdered or dies under suspicious circumstances the body is taken for autopsy.

Georgia has a strict standard in which medical examiners must be board certified to conduct autopsies.

But while more and more bodies come in, the number of forensic examiners is on the decline.

At the state crime lab in DeKalb County, issues are facing the autopsy process and the leading cause of death that prompted the state to action.

Like most Monday mornings, it's busy at the GBI Crime Lab in Decatur. 13 bodies are here for autopsy. The unofficial causes of death ranging from drug overdose to hanging.

"Our baseline is about seven to eight autopsies a day. The regional offices will usually have about one to two in Augusta, Savannah and Macon."

Each year the GBI crime lab conducts between 3,000 and 3,200 autopsies. They are performed by just 14 board certified forensic pathologists. But Chief GBI Medical Examiner Dr. Kris Sperry who oversees these operations says that qualification is a must.

"For testifying purposes in court, there is no other higher goal that a forensic pathologist can obtain to make themselves as credible as possible than to become board certified," Sperry said.

In cases like the high profile murder of young Jorelys Rivera in Canton, the job of the forensic scientist is under a watchful eye. Even the slightest detail can be the difference in a conviction or a case being overturned.

"I came in that night and examined her myself. It took about three hours before we got to the point where we actually began opening up her body to look at he injuries. It was just a very long process of documentation and evidence collection."

While Sperry says his office is able to manage the case load right now. He points out that there are only 400 board certified pathologists nationwide. Pathologists here take on the max, about 250 autopsies a year.

"the more cases that are done annually by a given doctor then the quality of the work frankly starts to deteriorate because you can only do so much and do it well. And that is what we want, we want all of them done well."

As the population grows and the number of pathologists declines, the future could pose problems nation wide.

Murders, suicides, deaths in law enforcement custody, or any death under suspicious circumstances require autopsy. But one common cause of death that's filling up morgues is that related to prescription drug overdoses.

"I have two a day everyday. It's an amazing problem right now."

Due to the rise in drug related deaths, the state had to hire five new toxicologists to take on the bulk.

This, as budget woes have impacted the GBI. For several months the regional crime lab in Moultrie was shuttered. It re-opened, but without an Medical Examiner. For south Georgia coroners that means bodies must now be transported to Macon or Decatur, which can be costly and time consuming.

In Dougherty County it cost taxpayers $400 round trip to send a body for autopsy.

While there will likely never be another M. E. in Moultrie, Sperry says his offices can handle the load and in the process answer the questions the dead cannot.

"Whether it's a homicide or malpractice trial or even just a family of a deceased individual wanting to know what happened to their loved one. That's what we do is figure out the questions ahead of time and get the answers for them."

All autopsies are pretty much preformed under the same manner which involves removing all of the major organs such as the heart, brain, and liver and weighing them. This is the same for deaths by murder or suicide.

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