By Brian Haas, The Tennessean
Melissa Satterwhite needed to know how her father died.
Fred Satterwhite was in good health and staying in an assisted-living facility in January 2010, when he died at 85. But it took nearly a year before Forensic Medical, the company contracted as Davidson County's Medical Examiner's Office, sent his daughter the autopsy results.
"I basically got put off a couple of times," she said, "and that was very upsetting, because I felt like I was getting taken advantage of."
An internal Forensic Medical report in mid-December showed that dozens of cases across the state remained open past 100 days, with almost three-dozen stretching past 200 days.
Dr. Amy McMaster, chief medical examiner, acknowledged that cases are taking longer to conclude, despite being fully staffed and no increase in the caseload. She attributed the delays to more complicated cases, like child deaths, and a shakeup in leadership after the arrest of the company's former chief, Dr. Bruce Levy, on drug and misconduct charges. Levy left Forensic Medical in March. McMaster was named chief medical examiner Dec. 10.
"There is certainly room for improvement for some of the cases, and that is being addressed. Just in the past few weeks, I've instructed our doctors that the turnaround time is something that needs to be improved," McMaster said. "It's not something I would consider a significant increase in the turnaround time, but we are always looking for ways to improve that."
She declined to discuss individual cases.
McMaster said her office took an average 69 days to complete autopsies last year, well within the industry standard of 60 to 90 days. Toxicology tests, which screen for various drugs and substances in the bloodstream, can take up to three months, she said.
Susan Niland, spokeswoman for the Davidson County District Attorney General's Office, said no criminal cases have been affected by the delays. But the unfinished autopsy reports have families waiting and, in some cases, prevent them from collecting life insurance policies.
Autopsies are required by law in Tennessee whenever someone dies under "suspicious, unusual or unnatural circumstances." If the police demand an autopsy it doesn't cost the family anything.
But families can pay for autopsies if they question the cause of death. Melissa Satterwhite paid $3,000 because she didn't believe her father died of natural causes.
Forensic Medical said the autopsy would take three or four months.
By December, the case still wasn't complete. Her husband, Don Sullivan, decided to write a letter to the mayor. "They seemed to reach their conclusions pretty quickly" after that, he said.
The results confirmed suspicion that Fred Satterwhite's death wasn't natural. It was accidental, caused by choking on food.
McMaster said once the medical examiner's office determined Satterwhite's death was not natural it took some time to determine what caused it.
She said the letter to Dean played no part in the autopsy's release.
The delays are not limited to Davidson County.
Forensic Medical does autopsies across the state, including Shelby County, where Melvin Amerson Sr., 82, died on May 25, 2010.
Maurice Amerson said he took his father to the hospital, worried he had pneumonia. The father died in the hospital and his son questions why an autopsy was ordered. He is still waiting for answers and has been unable to collect on his father's life insurance policy.
"We haven't gotten anything back because we never got a final death certificate," said Maurice Amerson. "It just says on the bottom, 'pending.' How long is 'pending'?"
Foster parents cleared
Waiting on a thorough autopsy can lead to exoneration for the wrongly accused, like in the case of Cherokeewolf William Diedrich, a 12-week-old baby who died Jan. 9, 2010.
For nine months, his foster parents were under a cloud of suspicion because an emergency room doctor thought the baby showed signs of abuse.
Ultimately, the medical examiner's office said Cherokeewolf died of a birth defect. The foster parents were cleared of any wrongdoing.
The family's attorney, Jennifer Thompson, said she understood the delay, in spite of the effects on the family.
"I think it gave credibility to their final finding, which was that it was a natural death," Thompson said.
Forensic Medical has earned a sterling reputation in Davidson County over the past 13 years after taking over for a trouble-plagued, county-run office.
The private company slashed turnaround times and improved quality of service, supporters say.
McMaster says that will continue.
"We are not returning to the days of pre-Forensic Medical," McMaster said. "We are still upholding the same quality and forensic standards."