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Surrounding counties may follow Carter County’s footsteps in autopsy resolution

Last week, Carter County Mayor Rusty Barnett met with seven other mayors from surrounding counties.

And one of the topics brought up was the issue of the cost of autopsy services and the frequency of which autopsies are being performed by the ETSU William L. Jenkins Forensic Center.

During the October Carter County Commission meeting, the commission passed a resolution, 23-0, to request that State Representatives for Carter County present legislation that would amend the Post-Mortem Examination Act so that only district attorneys, with the consultation of local law enforcement, can call for autopsies. As the act is currently worded, medical examiners can call for an autopsy of any death that is considered to have happened “under suspicious, unusual or unnatural circumstances.”

Mayor Barnett said that, like Carter County, other counties are concerned about the rising cost of autopsy services performed by the ETSU William L. Jenkins Forensics Center. Another concern is the steep rise in the number of autopsies being performed by the forensics center. And with their worries, Barnett said that other counties may follow suit in petitioning state legislators to make changes to laws affecting how autopsies can be called for.

“I gave them a copy of our resolution and they are going to take it before their commission,” said Barnett. “(Tennessee State Representative) Timothy Hill said he would carry it to the state’s capital.”

According to numbers provided by ETSU, in 2017 the forensics center conducted 62 autopsies on deaths that happened in Carter County.

That number was 66 in 2016 and 63 in 2015 which is more than double the 27 cases in 2014. In 2006, there were only 12 autopsies performed for Carter County.

Carter County Sheriff Dexter Lunceford said that the rise in autopsies can be connected to recent changes in state law.

“Previous to this legislation of four years ago, if there was a suspicious death in a county, the sheriff or the chief law enforcement agency in the county would contact the district attorney and call for an autopsy,” said Lunceford. “That legislation sidetracked all of that. Now it is done by the people that do the autopsies. The numbers have gone up drastically. We have no control. The district attorney or chief law enforcement officer of a county or city has no control of when they (autopsies) are done. 

“In my humble opinion, a lot of the autopsies are being done unnecessarily,” added Lunceford. 

Also during October’s meeting, the county commission voted 24-1 to approve a new contract with ETSU and the Forensic Center for autopsy services.

The year-long contract has a key difference from previous agreements between Carter County and ETSU. The new agreement, which would cost Carter County $113,592 paid out at $9,466 a month, includes a cap or a base number of 67 autopsies after which the county will have to pay $1,800 per autopsy. According to Carter County attorney Josh Hardin, this is the first year that a cap has been included in the contract.

ETSU, however, has not approved the contract on their end, and Mayor Barnett said he extended the old four-year contract, which does not include an autopsy cap, until January, while negotiations are conducted.

“We are going to go through the first of the year,” said Barnett. “They are wanting to talk about maybe giving up a better deal for four more years.”