More work, fewer staff add up to longer waits for Medical Examiner reports

DNA samples in storage at the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, which is increasingly backed up in reviewing the samples. AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

The city’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) is reporting a sharp rise in processing times for several key procedures, according to statistics released in the annual Mayor’s Management Report released this week.

The Medical Examiner needed nearly twice as long in the last fiscal year to process DNA in sexual assault cases as it did the previous year, with median completion times jumping from 27 days to 46 days between 2011 and 2012. (City fiscal years end June 30.) Processing times for toxicology cases, meanwhile, climbed from 40.5 to 60 days.

The annual rises continue a steep upward trend in processing times for the Medical Examiner’s office. The time it takes to complete toxicology results has more than doubled since 2008. Autopsies now take 69.5 days to finish, up from 49 days five years ago.

In the report, the Medical Examiner’s office blames the wait times on staff shortages, software changes and budget cuts. The OCME indicates it expects to reverse the trends this year with new mayoral funding and a more selective approach in testing.

The Medical Examiner is responsible for examining bodies after unusual or sudden deaths in the city, and performing procedures like autopsies and DNA tests. The office then shares information with local district attorneys in support of criminal investigations.

The work is complicated, according to Larry Kobilinsky, chair of the department of sciences at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

“If you saw the kind of paperwork that they have to produce for every case, you would easily understand,” he said, describing a scientific case file on his desk that was “easily six inches thick.”

“They have to document, every time they work a case, that they have been thorough and diligent in analyzing evidence and preparing their report,” Kobilinsky added. “It’s not a simple matter.”

In total, the OCME discloses processing times for eight different procedures in the Mayor’s Management Report, including various types of autopsy, toxicology, and DNA tests. Of those eight procedures, four showed increases of greater than 10 percent over the last fiscal year. And since 2008, four of the indicators have jumped by more than 50 percent.

A spokeswoman for the OCME declined to comment for this story. But numbers in the report showed that the over the same four-year period, the number of personnel employed by OCME dropped from 661 to 582.

Even as the OCME’s staffing levels have diminished, its caseload has grown: in 2007, the city expanded the office’s portfolio to include testing not just for homicides and sexual assaults, but also for property crimes, attempted homicides and felony assaults.

While the Mayor’s Management Report does not disclose the number of total scientific and DNA tests conducted by the OCME, Kobilinsky said that the recent trends could be attributed to the increased caseload.

“It all adds up to a certain period of time,” Kobilinsky said. “If you’ve been involved in criminal justice, you know how slowly the wheels grind.”

The Mayor’s Management Report indicates that OCME expects budget restorations to boost the number of personnel back up to 691.

Local defense lawyers said that they had not detected significant increases in delays in processing DNA samples.

“It always takes a long time,” said Eric M. Sears, a Manhattan defense attorney. “I haven’t noticed it taking any longer now than it used to.”

Sears said that he rarely deals directly with the OCME, instead receiving test results from the local district attorney.

Officials at the Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan and Staten Island district attorneys’ offices could not be reached for comment Thursday.

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