Columbus Crime & Drug Deaths Widen Autopsy Backlog; Bodies Take Weeks To Examine
Columbus families wait weeks to lay loved ones to rest, as a smaller pool of medical examiners struggle to keep up with the rise in violent crime deaths and drug overdoses.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s Medical Examiner’s Office has a tremendous backlog of bodies requiring autopsies.
Image Credit:
Georgia Bureau of Investigation

The increases in Columbus deaths caused by crime and drug overdose are beginning to manifest themselves in new ways, as the State Crime Lab cannot keep up with the high number of autopsies required. 

The autopsy backlog is preventing families from having their loved one’s remains returned for weeks or even months before they can be laid to rest.

The interim director of the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, John Melvin, cited three reasons for the increasing backlog: fewer doctors, increased crime deaths, and an increase in drug overdoses — emphasizing fentanyl deaths in particular.

Melvin said that Georgia’s fentanyl problem is of particular concern, stating that two-thirds of all autopsies performed by the State Crime Lab are due to drug overdoses — the single largest cause of the backlog when considering the number of deaths alone. 

“I can tell you it’s directly attributable. I mean, two-thirds of our autopsies are overdose deaths, and those are on a steep increase because of the fentanyl crisis that the state of Georgia is experiencing,” Melvin said in a report published by WRBL.

Fentanyl is a highly potent synthetic opioid. It is largely manufactured in China and then smuggled into the U.S. from Mexico, causing what has become a nation-wide drug epidemic since the onset of the pandemic. The dangerous substance is often laced into many illegal drugs causing drug users to unknowingly ingest the fentanyl, resulting in their death.

Melvin also cited the huge increase in violent crime as a reason for the autopsy backlog — much of which has occurred here in Columbus. While the Columbus homicide rate has declined slightly during 2022, it continues to be a contributing factor behind why the State Crime Lab cannot keep up with the sheer number of autopsies required. 

In 2021, the Fountain City recorded an astonishing 75 homicides; a rate of nearly 38 homicides per hundred-thousand residents. For context, the U.S. national average homicide rate has historically been only 5 per hundred-thousand residents. Columbus’ rate of 38 homicides per hundred-thousand residents means Columbus had more than seven times as many homicides than the rest of the country on average.

Another reason for the backlog is a shortage of qualified professionals within the area, resulting in a shortage of forensic pathologists to perform autopsies. As recently reported by The Muckraker, Columbus and the surrounding area have disproportionately struggled to maintain a “talented and educated” workforce, in spite of the many years-long efforts to do so

According to a report by WRBL, Melvin had the following to say about retaining forensic pathologists in the area:

“Entry into the field is at an all time low. Students graduating medical school are at an all time low (…) we’re actively competing against New York, Chicago and other areas.”

Melvin’s statement corroborates two factors largely experienced by many other professional fields within the region. Firstly, the region is not retaining enough of its own professionals, as they are simply moving away to seek better employment opportunities elsewhere. Secondly, professionals from across the nation aren’t interested in moving to the Chattahoochee Valley region to further their careers. 

With no foreseeable changes to policies within the Columbus area, drug use and violent crime are likely to increase. The recent closure of the Boxwood Recreation Center may provide insight into how the Columbus Consolidated Government plans on approaching the issues, as the center’s closure denies local children resources that once offered them reprieve.

Columbus residents can voice their opinions about the causes driving the autopsy backlog by contacting their city council members through the city’s website here.

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