Midstate families waiting months for autopsy reports

Nearly two months after her husband’s death, Cheryl Janssen is still receiving bills in his name.

She says she can’t change them without a death certificate, which can’t be issued until after his autopsy results are complete.

At first, Janssen wasn’t sure that she wanted an autopsy performed on 51-year-old Bruce Janssen, who died April 25 with no known medical problems.

But after a sleepless night and knowing her children wanted to know, she requested the autopsy.

“I just had to know,” Janssen said, adding she hopes the results will provide closure.

The Janssen family is one of eight families who have lost loved ones in Bibb County and are waiting on the news of what caused their loved one to die, said Bibb County Coroner Leon Jones.

Dr. George Herrin, director of the GBI’s crime lab, said the average wait for autopsy results statewide is 68 days.

The time required to perform tests for a final autopsy depends on the complexity of the case, he said.

Herrin said cases are being completed faster than two to three years ago, mainly due to a concerted effort to expedite post-mortem toxicology results.

According to the most recent statistics available, the GBI had a backlog of 94 autopsies older than 90 days, Herrin said.

But in Bibb County, it’s typical that families are waiting as long as three and four months on a final autopsy performed by the GBI, Jones said.

Sometimes it can take longer.

The family of 7-month-old Janaiya Powell waited nearly eight months after her death on Oct. 23. Her autopsy results were returned on June 11, Jones said.

But the results didn’t provide many answers.

The cause of death returned by the crime lab was unexplained sudden death, Jones said.

“It can be very stressful not to know what killed their loved one,” Jones said. “Families need closure.”

What’s more, families can’t handle all of a deceased person’s final affairs without a final cause of death and a death certificate, he said.

“The bills don’t stop coming because a loved one is lost,” Jones said, adding wills can’t be probated, property can’t be sold and many accounts can’t be changed to a different person’s name.

As a courtesy, Jones said his office sends letters to insurance companies informing them that the office intends to sign a death certificate after autopsy results are returned.

But insurance companies still demand a death certificate before issuing payments, such as the life insurance payments often used to pay for burials, he said.

Janssen said she’s called the GBI in hopes of finding out when the results would be available, but feels she’s getting the runaround.

No one has provided her with a timetable or explanation.

“To me, it’s unacceptable,” she said. “I think it’s unfair to keep the families in limbo.”

The wait for autopsy results also causes a delay when foul play is possible in a person’s death.

Robert Saxby, 31, of Crestview Drive, died Feb. 2 following a fight outside Polly’s Mirage on Jeffersonville Road.

Although Saxby died, deputies could not charge any of the people involved in the fight with killing him until autopsy results were returned four months later, said Bibb County sheriff’s Capt. Mike Smallwood.

“We couldn’t do anything,” he said.

Seven people were charged with murder in Saxby’s death after final autopsy results, returned June 10, revealed he’d died of cardiorespiratory complications from a cerebral concussion.

All seven people are being held at the Bibb County jail without bond, according to jail records.

Smallwood said deputies still are waiting on autopsy results to determine how 47-year-old Robin Lester Touchton died on May 29.

Touchton, of Fort Valley, lost consciousness after a fight at 2861 Pineworth St. and was pronounced dead at The Medical Center of Central Georgia that night. No criminal charges have been filed.

Authorities say it’s unclear whether the fight contributed to Touchton’s death.

Smallwood said investigators have persons of interest and are conducting interviews with witnesses.

“But the medical examiner has to tell us it’s a homicide,” Smallwood said.

“You can’t file charges unless you have a cause of death,” he said.

Herrin said the crime lab has a total backlog of 7,550 reports to be written that includes tests ranging from firearms to autopsies.

He said the answer to eliminating the backlog is more people and more money.

Although legislators threatened to close GBI lab facilities in Moultrie, Columbus and Summerville due to budget cuts this year, Herrin said the labs will remain funded through the first nine months of fiscal year 2010.

After the first nine months, the labs’ future is unclear, he said.

Information from The Telegraph’s archives was included in this report.