Murder rate, crashes to blame for post-mortem backlog

MONTEGO BAY, St James — Those waiting on State-handled post-mortems for their loved ones can also blame the country’s murder rate and deaths by motor vehicular accidents for the sometimes months-long delays.

An article published by the Jamaica Observer earlier this month highlighted the length of time that it took for autopsies under the control of the Government, islandwide.

In that news story the sister of murdered businesswoman Lativa Helps bemoaned having to wait two months for an autopsy to be performed. The woman complained that her family’s plans to put together proper funeral arrangements were on hold as they had no idea when the autopsy would be done.

A dive into the Jamaica Observer’s archives, dating as far back as 2015, showed a handful of articles involving families voicing concern over the time that it took for autopsies to be done so that their loved ones could be buried.

The number of forensic pathologists on the island has always been brought into focus.

Autopsies are carried out through the Institute of Forensic Science and Legal Medicine (IFSLM), an agency of the Ministry of National Security. It is reported that there are currently four forensic pathologists serving the country’s 14 parishes, and according to the Ministry of National Security this has contributed to a backlog in the cases islandwide.

“There is a shortage of forensics pathologists in the government system. As a result, the four pathologists are the only ones available to cover all 14 parishes,” the ministry said in its response to a query from the Sunday Observer.

Jamaica has always grappled with a shortage of forensic pathologists. However, challenged by the island’s high murder rate and deaths caused by road accidents, the four pathologists who are now in the system are stretched thin.

“It is having a negative impact on the length of time it takes to schedule and conduct post-mortems”, the national security ministry said.

The Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) says that as of October 16 there have been 1,231 murders across the island. In addition to that, 359 people have lost their lives in road accidents since the start of the year, over the same period.

That, the national security ministry said, is putting additional pressure on the country’s forensic pathologists, causing delays. The ministry said that it usually takes an average of four to six weeks for autopsies to be done, but “in some instances it takes longer”.

The Sunday Observer was unable to ascertain the number of autopsies currently included in this backlog, however, the ministry said the cases are assessed to determine the urgency of the autopsy. Cases involving children and victims of sexual assault and murder are reportedly prioritised for post-mortem examinations.

“Yes, there is a backlog; the exact figure depends on the amount of deaths added per day/week. The situation is exacerbated by the recent spate of incidents of mass killings,” said the Ministry of National Security.

The ministry added, “Cases are triaged and then scheduled in order of priority. The other cases are done in chronological order.”

Paul Patmore, operator of Patmore’s Funeral Home in Trelawny, told the Sunday Observer that he is not affected by the backlog in autopsies, due to the low crime rate in the parish. Patmore’s Funeral Home is the government-contracted parlour for the parish of Trelawny.

“There is not a great backlog on our side; we have our regular post-mortems. The most [time] we wait is five weeks. The murder rate isn’t as bad, and we have quite a few motor vehicle accidents, but we don’t have that big of an issue here,” Patmore explained.

At the same time, Patmore said that in his attempt to cushion the blow caused by the shortage of forensic pathologists, “we sometimes take the bodies into Kingston or Spanish Town for the autopsy to be done”. He told the Sunday Observer that this, however, is not a regular occurrence as the IFSLM designates a day when a pathologist visits Trelawny to conduct autopsies.

“They do it parish by parish and they try to give Trelawny a day. Trelawny does not really have a lot of cases so they sometimes wait until they have about three cases here,” said Patmore.

While there are not many instances of delays in autopsies in Trelawny, Patmore said that an issue with bodies being frozen has caused scheduled cases to be postponed.

“On quite a few occasions bodies have turned up at post-mortems frozen, and that will cause the autopsy to be rescheduled. Different reasons can cause a delay but it is not always the fault of the Government. At least once every year we end up with bodies that are too frozen to be cut,” he said.

For president of the Jamaica Association of Certified Embalmers and Funeral Directors Calvin Lyn, delays in autopsies is accepted as the norm “because of the volume of cases islandwide and the pressure on the forensic unit”.

Lyn, the proprietor of Lyn’s Funeral Home in Manchester, told the Sunday Observer that he has had to wait approximately six months for an autopsy to be carried out on partially decomposed bodies.

“Someone drowns, motor vehicular accident, hanging, shooting — those sometimes take us two or three months for the autopsies to be done, especially when the bodies are partially decomposed. As it is now, the forensic unit is having a problem getting the pathologists to do the autopsies on these decomposed cases on a regular basis,” Lyn shared.

“We have had [partially] decomposed cases, and I believe the other contractors would as well, for up to six months because the forensic unit will take three at a time from us,” he added.