Smith County commissioners will take their time in deciding how to approach rising autopsy costs after county officials discussed the pros and cons of different service providers.
At issue is whether to allow a local forensic company to perform autopsies, or to continue sending the majority of cases to a company based in Dallas, as the county district attorney prefers.
In Smith County, justices of the peace act as the coroner and pronounce people dead under every circumstance including car accidents, homicides and natural deaths. They also are the first official to request an autopsy if suspicious circumstances exist. Where the bodies go to be examined is their decision by law.
For almost two decades, Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences in Dallas has performed the vast majority of the county’s autopsies, especially deaths believed to be criminal in nature. The cost of autopsies has grown to around $250,000 annually, and commissioners are looking for ways to save money.
Some local law enforcement agencies, including the district attorney’s office and Tyler Police Department, have requested specific cases be sent to Southwestern. However, justices who prefer Forensic Medical can deny those requests.
During the commissioners court meeting on Tuesday, Justice of the Peace Gary Alfred said he does not care who provides the service, as long as it is performed by competent professionals. He said he has 100 percent confidence in Forensic Medical and prefers the company because it is local, and convenient for investigators and the victim’s family. But, he added, “if law enforcement insists on going to SWIFS, that’s where I am going.”
Last year, about 135 autopsies were performed in Smith County.
County Judge Joel Baker said his preference is to “go local always” with regard to local contractors.
Baker said he also talked to criminal investigators who prefer the local provider because Southwestern denies certain access, including prohibiting photography during the procedures and questioning pathologists.
As county judge, Baker probates wills and sees that a majority of autopsies performed prove to be unnecessary, he said. He said he would like to investigate options for justices to reduce the number of unnecessary autopsies, such as consulting with physicians before ordering an examination.
Smith County District Attorney Matt Bingham defended using Southwestern Institute of Forensic Sciences, calling it a “one-stop shop” for post-mortem investigative medical examinations. Bingham said he has worked on cases with the company for 15 of 17 years as a county prosecutor and believes it has the staff, labs and equipment necessary to assist in cases and gather evidence to show guilt or innocence.
Forensic Medical does not offer on-site services provided by Southwestern such as ballistic testing and toxicology screenings, which are important phases of evidence collection in some deaths. Instead, it sends evidence to other facilities to be tested, such as sending ballistics evidence to the Texas Department of Public Safety’s crime lab.
Bingham said Southwestern recently opened a new 112,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art facility where all phases of evidence gathering can be done. The company also provides forensic services to agencies all over the state and nation, he said. Southwestern’s experience and varied forensic abilities are important distinctions, he said.
“With evidence, the chain of custody is crucial in a capital murder case, and SWIFS doesn’t have to have anyone come pick it up and take it somewhere else. Once it’s there it never leaves the building,” he said.
Forensic Medical forensic pathologist John Stash said his company is capable of delivering every aspect of the district attorney’s needs, although it would be contracted out. Stash said the company is working to increase the level of services and has experienced accredited pathologists on par with those at Southwestern.
Justice of the Peace James Meredith prefers Forensic Medical and said there has been no communication between he and the district attorney’s office regarding why it prefers Southwestern over Forensic Medical. He said justices make the final decision regarding where the autopsies take place and felt other agencies were pushing Southwestern’s services.
“My toes were stepped on,” he told the court. “That’s the only way I can put it. The concerns Mr. Bingham shared today, that was the first time I’ve heard them.”
Meredith said any problems regarding assigning autopsies come down to communication.
Bingham said his office is willing to coordinate and cooperate with justices and other officials to come to the best conclusion for victims, their families and the county. He said one option would be to allow Forensic Medical to handle the majority of cases but to allow prosecutors input to send probable capital murder cases and other major crimes to Southwestern. He said that would mean between five and 10 cases would be sent to Southwestern annually.
“To me it comes down to if someone hurt a family member of mine I would hate to think we wouldn’t send them to the best forensics facility available to save a few hundred dollars,” he said.
County Commissioner JoAnn Hampton recommended the justices, district attorney and other officials who comprise the county’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee discuss the matter during its scheduled July 25 meeting before the court makes a decision. She said she believes Forensic Medical is up to the job and prefers autopsies be done locally at a cost savings for taxpayers.
Bingham offered to cover autopsy costs above what Forensic Medical would charge in order for Southwestern to perform examinations in certain cases involving likely foul play. The money would come from his office’s drug seizure fund, he said.
Commissioner Jeff Warr said the court’s actions will not be determined solely on dollars and cents but that an effective local provider should be considered.
“We don’t want to cut corners and let a murderer walk,” he told Bingham. “I want you to have the confidence in the evidence so you can do your job and do it right.”