Houston & Peach

Houston County now relying solely on GBI for autopsies

WARNER ROBINS -- For nearly 40 years, Houston County was among a few counties in the state with its own medical examiner. But the county has been operating without one since Dr. James Whitaker retired in late April.

Most counties, now including Houston County, rely on the GBI for autopsy work.

An elected coroner is responsible for a death investigation at the scene, but a medical examiner performs autopsies to determine the cause and manner of death. State law requires that autopsies be conducted by a medical doctor.

Whitaker, the only person to serve as medical examiner in Houston County, held the job from October 1975 until this past April 27.

Houston County Coroner Danny Galpin said there are no plans to fill the post.

“There is no one to appoint,” said Galpin, a registered nurse and former paramedic who’s served as coroner 35 years. “There’s no one around who wants it. ... There’s just such a few. The (doctors) that are here work in hospitals, and they just don’t want to mess with doing an autopsy, especially for $700.”

Whitaker, who had his own pathology company, was paid $700 per autopsy and $100 per inspection by the county. An inspection is a physical review by a medical examiner that does not require a surgical procedure.

For comparison, the lowest contractual rate in the region that Galpin said he is aware of is $2,500 per autopsy. The GBI provides autopsies, which are not required for most deaths, to counties at no charge.

“The coroner can rule on the cause of death if it’s an obvious cause of death, but something that’s going to end up going to court, or you just don’t know what the cause of death is (and) you need to have a medical examiner do an autopsy,” Galpin said.

Having a county medical examiner was a luxury, Galpin said.

“It was just more of a convenience having (a medical examiner) because he was here at any time we needed him,” he said. “It stayed in the county, where now, if we need a medical examiner, we have to transport the body to Macon to the crime lab. And we have to have them up there at a certain time, and we have to pick them up at a certain time, and it’s just, you know, a lot more work.”

In the past, the body was taken to the morgue at Houston Medical Center where Whitaker generally went the next day to perform the autopsy, Galpin said.

But the GBI crime lab doesn’t have the convenience of a big morgue, with its two medical examiners conducting four or five autopsies daily between them, Galpin said.

In most cases, the funeral homes handle transportation of the body to the GBI crime lab, Galpin said.

“We had it good,” Galpin said of having Whitaker on the job for so many years.

Sheriff Cullen Talton said he would like for the county to have its own medical examiner, because there’s often a backlog at the crime lab that potentially could delay autopsy results.

“We’re going to miss Dr. Whitaker because he was one of the best,” Talton said. “I hated to see him retire.”

Bibb County has not had a medical examiner in about 15 years, said Leon Jones, who’s served as the county’s coroner since 2004 and who was a deputy coroner dating back to 1990.

“It was a quicker turnaround when we had our own medical examiner,” Jones said.

Bibb County also uses the GBI crime lab in Macon, because private autopsies range from about $2,500 to $6,000, he said.

Many counties, such as Peach, have never had their own medical examiner, said Kerry Rooks, who’s been the county’s coroner since 1994 and who previously served as the deputy coroner for 13 years. Rooks, a funeral director, said the county also relies on the GBI.

Fulton, Cobb, Gwinnett and DeKalb counties have their own free-standing medical examiner offices, the GBI said.

Fulton and Cobb counties have their own pathologists, who are county employees, and Gwinnett and DeKalb contract with pathologists. Rockdale County has its autopsies done at a local hospital under contract, and Hall County contracts with DeKalb County.

However, the GBI’s medical examiner has jurisdiction over any deaths that occur on state property, that the GBI investigates or that occur in state-run mental health facilities.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.