Valdosta Daily Times

State News

December 2, 2013

Suicide rulings questioned

Investigation: Autopsies, other tests often not performed

ATLANTA — A newspaper investigation has found that many deaths labeled suicides by authorities in Georgia have not undergone a full forensic examination.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution analyzed a database of nearly 175,000 state death certificates and found that more than 1,000 deaths since 2011 were labeled suicides without such examinations. Officials closed the cases of nearly 40 percent of suspected suicides without autopsies or other tests, the newspaper determined.

Elected coroners, who often lack training in medicine or forensic pathology, attributed deaths to a variety of causes, including gunshot wounds, hanging, suffocation with plastic bags, helium inhalation and self-mutilation.

In 69 cases, officials said suicides were caused by drug overdoses, but never verified that with laboratory tests.

Some states require autopsies in most suicide cases, and many forensic experts say they should be performed in any death that raises suspicion.

“It really depends on the circumstances of the death,” Dr. Gregory Davis, a professor of pathology at the University of Kentucky and that state’s assistant medical examiner told the newspaper. But he said officials should determine whether a death is caused by infectious disease, which could indicate a health threat, or by foul play, which might signal a crime.

Georgia law says suicides must be reported to a county coroner or the state medical examiner, who has the authority to decide whether to do an autopsy.

Dr. Kris Sperry, Georgia’s chief medical examiner, said he’s not concerned that the lack of autopsies for many suspected suicides may leave a trace of uncertainty.

In most cases, he said, “everything surrounding the death is very clear. It is vanishingly rare that a suicide turns out to be something other than what it’s portrayed as being.”

In 1,068 of the 2,742 suicides reported in Georgia from 2011 through the middle of this year, the medical examiner was not informed of the deaths or chose not to do an autopsy. By comparison, only 46 homicides, about 3 percent of the 1,564 reported during the same period, went without autopsies.

Neil Sims, a funeral director in Douglas, has been the coroner in Coffee County in southern Georgia since 1984. He said he consults with law enforcement and the state medical examiner’s office before deciding whether to ask for autopsies for apparent suicides. He said he looks at a variety of factors.

“It’s pretty obvious, usually,” Sims said.

Coroners are elected officials in 154 of Georgia’s 159 counties. They oversee investigations into all kinds of deaths, including homicides, accidents, suicides and those from natural causes. In Fulton, DeKalb, Gwinnett, Cobb and Clayton counties, physicians trained in pathology serve as appointed medical examiners.

Few of the elected coroners have medical training. State law requires that they be at least 25 years old, registered to vote and a high school graduate. Each newly elected coroner must go through 40 hours of training at the state law enforcement academy and then must attend 24 hours of additional classes each year.

Georgia’s state auditor has issued reports twice in the past three years questioning whether coroners routinely follow the law that requires them to notify the state medical examiner of suspicious deaths, including suicides. The auditor has suggested a law requiring coroners to report every death to the medical examiner.

In a follow-up study this year, the auditor said the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, which includes the state medical examiner, said “more pressing needs ... have supplanted the exploration of changes to the Georgia Death Investigation Act.” The agency did not elaborate.

Sperry, Georgia’s chief medical examiner, said the state’s coroners perform well and rigorously investigate suicides and other suspicious deaths.

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