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The Beaufort County Coroner’s office officially opened it’s new autopsy lab Thursday, Sept. 8, in Port Royal. From left are Coroner David Ott, Forensic Pathologist Dr. Joni Skipper, and Assistant Pathologist and Office Manager Sheldon Phillips. Beaufort County is the first county in South Carolina to have a full-time forensic pathology staff. Bob Sofaly/The Island News

A forensic first for SC

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New county autopsy facility will help families, law enforcement with quicker turnaround

By Tony Kukulich

Last week’s official opening of a forensic autopsy suite in Beaufort County is expected to have benefits for law enforcement and for families waiting for information about the death of a loved one by cutting the time required to complete a forensic autopsy.

“This new suite will give our families closure in hours instead of days and weeks,” District 4 Council member Alice Howard said. “It will provide our police officers with critical clues and advantages to bring justice for victims’ families. It will help our community navigate the tragedy and aftermath of losing a loved one.”

The opening of the facility was marked Thursday, Sept. 8, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by elected officials, law enforcement representatives and others. However, Beaufort County Coroner David Ott noted that a number of autopsies had already been completed by the staff there.

When the Beaufort County Coroner’s Office opened its current location on Old Shell Road in Port Royal in 2014, former Coroner Ed Allen planned for the eventual development of autopsy capabilities. A part of the building was set aside for that purpose and sat unused until now. With the opening, Beaufort County is the first county in the state to operate and staff such a facility.

“Our doctor is a county employee,” Ott said. “Dr. Joni Skipper is the first county-employed forensic pathologist in the state.”

Skipper received her medical degree from the University of South Carolina School of Medicine and most recently was a forensic pathologist/associate medical examiner at Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

“We are proud to be a part of this team and look forward to working with all of you,” Skipper said. “I do want to emphasize our availability to the families and to our local law enforcement agencies.”

The estimated cost for the first year of operation is $438,400. The salaries of the county’s pathologist and assistant account for nearly 80% of that cost. Another $88,400 was used to purchase the equipment needed to get the autopsy suite operational.

“David Ott came up with the idea to hire a full-time person,” Howard said. “He had the foresight, and then he came up with the budget. He presented that to us and showed it actually saves money because you don’t have to pay police officers overtime, whether they work for the City of Beaufort or the Town of Port Royal or the Sheriff’s Office. They’re able to do their job, and they don’t have to be up in Charleston during the autopsy. It was a savings, even though we hired two people.”

Before the opening of the county’s new facility, autopsies were performed at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) in Charleston. They typically were scheduled four or five days after death, but could take more than a week. Additionally, investigators had to travel with the body, necessitating a significant amount of time away from their jurisdiction.

“Those law enforcement agencies will come here,” Ott said. “They can get the same information faster here. Not only that, when they’re here, they can talk to the pathologist one on one. She will be able to help build solid cases for them.”

It is estimated that the county’s autopsy suite will save the taxpayers $42,525. Added to that is the savings within law enforcement budgets because personnel will no longer be required to travel to Charleston to observe the autopsy or collect evidentiary items.

The county expects to complete 190 autopsies a year, and they have the capacity to handle another 50 autopsies for the surrounding counties. Fees collected for that work are expected to offset a portion of the county’s operating expense.

Skipper explained that the amount of time required to complete an autopsy can vary from 30 minutes to a full day, depending on the complexity of the case. Her work, however, is far from over once the autopsy is complete. The autopsy report can be a critical part of a police investigation and subsequent trial.

“It’s not just the time spent in the autopsy suite,” Skipper said. “There’s a lot of time spent afterward reviewing scene photographs, medical records, incident reports; looking at slides under a microscope and interpreting toxicology results. There’s a lot of work that goes into that autopsy report.”

There may still be instances in which the county will depend on MUSC for autopsy services, not the least of which is the need for time off for the staff.

“They’ve got to take time off,” Ott said. “You’ve got to have a vacation. You can’t do this job year round and not take time off. You’ve got to be able to spend time with your family or you’re not going to make it.”

Tony Kukulich is a recent transplant to the Lowcountry. A native of Wilmington, Del., he comes to The Island News from the San Francisco Bay Area where he spent seven years as a reporter and photographer for several publications. He can be reached at tony.theislandnews@gmail.com.

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