Two families, united in grief and frustration

D.C. Plagued By Backlog In Autopsy Reports

By Cheryl W. Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 31, 2005

The D.C. medical examiner's office has a backlog of 1,037 unfinished autopsy reports, including some cases dating back more than a decade, records show. The agency's slow turnaround has delayed police work and criminal prosecutions, and forced some families to sue the office to obtain the paperwork about their loved ones.

The District's incomplete autopsies include 765 that are at least a year old. Maryland and Virginia, by comparison, have no cases a year old. Among the unfinished D.C. cases are 84 homicides.

"Years ago, they would complete the report and put it in our mailbox," said Tony Patterson, a veteran homicide detective in the District. "Now, it takes an act of Congress to get an autopsy report from them."

The backlog has occurred in an office that has had four of its six chiefs leave amid controversy. Last year, the D.C. Council approved a chief after waiving the minimum qualifications. Several pathologists have left recently. And documents detail several questionable rulings by the chief and deputy medical examiners.

Chief Medical Examiner Marie-Lydie Y. Pierre-Louis, 55, who was appointed by Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) and confirmed by the council last year, declined several requests for an interview.

Edward D. Reiskin, the deputy mayor for public safety and justice who oversees Pierre-Louis's office, said the agency has made progress, citing a reduction in the backlog, which was 100 cases higher last year. "I think there's been a lot of improvement in that office under her leadership," he said.

The backlog was 1,136 at the end of September 2004, according to records.

A common complaint concerns delays in producing autopsy reports, which list the cause and manner of death and other medical details. Families often need the reports to settle estates or file for insurance benefits. Police and prosecutors rely on them to investigate homicides and bring suspects to trial.

"You want a written record," D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said in an interview. "You need that if you are to confirm to a jury or judge that this person died from a gunshot wound or whatever."

When Warren Burnett, 50, died of a blow to the head in early September, D.C. police identified a suspect within days and drafted a warrant for the man's arrest. But officers were forced to wait more than two months before serving the warrant until the medical examiner's office completed the autopsy report.

"We just couldn't move on," said Capt. C.V. Morris, head of the police department's violent crimes branch. "We were sort of stuck."

The medical examiner's office investigates violent deaths and those that threaten public health, occur without medical attention or occur in custody. The office performed 1,163 autopsies last year.

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