The Atlanta Journal-Constitution analyzed a database of nearly 175,000 state death certificates and found that more than 1,000 deaths since 2011 were labeled suicides without such examinations. Officials closed the cases of nearly 40 percent of suspected suicides without autopsies or other tests, the newspaper determined.
Elected coroners, who often lack training in medicine or forensic pathology, attributed deaths to a variety of causes, including gunshot wounds, hanging, suffocation with plastic bags, helium inhalation and self-mutilation.
In 69 cases, officials said suicides were caused by drug overdoses, but never verified that with laboratory tests.
Some states require autopsies in most suicide cases, and many forensic experts say they should be performed in any death that raises suspicion.
“It really depends on the circumstances of the death,” Dr. Gregory Davis, a professor of pathology at the University of Kentucky and that state’s assistant medical examiner told the newspaper. But he said officials should determine whether a death is caused by infectious disease, which could indicate a health threat, or by foul play, which might signal a crime.
Georgia law says suicides must be reported to a county coroner or the state medical examiner, who has the authority to decide whether to do an autopsy.
Dr. Kris Sperry, Georgia’s chief medical examiner, said he’s not concerned that the lack of autopsies for many suspected suicides may leave a trace of uncertainty.
In most cases, he said, “everything surrounding the death is very clear. It is vanishingly rare that a suicide turns out to be something other than what it’s portrayed as being.”
In 1,068 of the 2,742 suicides reported in Georgia from 2011 through the middle of this year, the medical examiner was not informed of the deaths or chose not to do an autopsy. By comparison, only 46 homicides, about 3 percent of the 1,564 reported during the same period, went without autopsies.