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GBI backlog leaves families waiting — for months — for closure

As of December, there were a total of 32,576 unworked GBI reports, according to records obtained by CBS46 investigates.
Updated: Dec. 9, 2021 at 5:00 PM EST
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GRIFFIN, Ga. (CBS46) — At Memorial Gardens Cemetery in Griffin, there is no headstone for Erica Watkins. Her grave is only marked by a plot of brown dirt — almost overtaken with grass now.

The burial plot is unfinished, much like the investigation of the 25-year-old’s puzzling death. “She was always blessing me with something. She was so amazing,” her mom, Sharika Watkins said.

Back in May, the young Clayton County mother did not make it through her first Mother’s Day alive. Erica was on a road trip coming to town, when near Columbus, she apparently just stopped breathing.

The family thought the death was suspicious. The coroner sent her case to the GBI to find out. Fast forward to seven months later, and there’s been no complete autopsy report and no finalized death certificate from the agency.

And a death certificate is far more than just a piece of paper. Death certificates are needed to handle all legal and financial matters. It is also a means to get answers. Answers Sharika is desperate to find.

“I’ve been having anxiety,” she cried. “I can’t sleep at night because I don’t have closure. I don’t know what really happened to her.”

25-year-old Erica Watkins died after a road trip with friends. Her family believes it was...
25-year-old Erica Watkins died after a road trip with friends. Her family believes it was suspicious.(CBS46)

As of December, there were a total of 32,576 unworked GBI reports, according to records, causing delays in getting resolution for families like the Watkins.

CBS46 investigates found 25 percent of the backlog is toxicology, forensic biology, and trace evidence reports — factors which help in autopsies and understanding why people like Erica unexpectedly stopped breathing.

The other 75 percent include reports like firearm, finger prints, and chemistry reports. All backlogged, and all needed for investigators hoping to solve confirmed criminal cases.

“It’s difficult in the fact it trickles down to the families. We’re not able to produce a death certificate in a timely manner,” explained Buddy Byran, Vice President of the Georgia Coroner’s Association. “We all talk about it but there’s very little we can do about it.”

They believe the GBI backlogged systems burden already grieving families. “We used to have more GBI crime labs than we have now, so that has reduced the number of opportunities where we send bodies,” Byran added.

CBS46 investigates found the GBI has seven regional offices, but as of this year, only three sites perform autopsies: Savannah, Macon, and Decatur. Meaning the workload increases for medical examiners at those locations.

“These medical examiners are doing anywhere from 25 to 30 autopsies a day and that’s a tremendous amount going through their facility,” Bryan said.

It’s not just fewer GBI offices, it’s fewer staff members. Combine that with more deaths and more crime in the state.

The latest available records, from the agency’s monthly report, show the agency with more than 100 vacancies. The GBI is also seeking a Chief Medical Examiner.

With cases not closed, closure feels non-existent. For the Watkins family, it all remains incomplete, just like the gravesite where they grieve.

“I wouldn’t put this on my worst enemy. Then to not know what’s wrong,” Sharika cried. “Everybody is like, what happened, what happened? I can’t tell them nothing because I don’t know. I’m wondering everyday what happened.”

A GBI spokesperson declined a formal interview with CBS46, but provided comment, saying a 7-month wait for a death certificate is an outlier.

“Any death certificate that is waiting that long is either waiting for further studies or information requested from the coroner or outside location.”

Adding, the increase in workload without an increase in staffing has caused the major backlog. The agency is currently seeking budget increases from the state.

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