There is no standard time for completing an autopsy, say experts. But the lack of an official autopsy for Roxsana Hernandez, a transgender woman who died in ICE custody more than seven months ago, is starting to raise eyebrows.
The New Mexico Office of the Medical Examiner (OMI) says Hernandez’s case is still under review. Her autopsy was conducted on June 4.
“We don’t think it does Ms. Hernandez or the public any good to rush to any conclusion,” Alex Sanchez, public information officer for the OMI, told INTO. “The pathologist will take whatever time he needs on it.”
Hernandez’s case has drawn national media attention. ICE reported she died on May 25 after experiencing complications of pneumonia, dehydration, and untreated HIV. In November, The Daily Beast reported that an independent autopsy, commissioned by The Transgender Law Center (TLC) and immigration attorney R. Andrew Free on behalf of Hernandez’s family, found Hernandez was severely beaten in custody. ICE refutes that she was abused while at Cibola County Correctional Center.
Sanchez said the OMI’s autopsy has nothing to do with the independent autopsy commissioned by TLC and declined to state why the agency’s autopsy lagged behind the independent report.
In early December, INTO filed a public records request for the autopsy. In response, the OMI said it may need more than 12 weeks to produce an autopsy. It has now been 31 weeks.
Medical examiners across the country aim to complete autopsies quickly, in part because industry standards demand it.
Last month, the Maricopa Medical Examiner’s Office in Arizona proudly announced its accreditation by the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME).
“It wasn’t easy for us,” said Fields Moseley, a spokesperson for the county. “We’re one of the busiest medical examiners in the country.
The Maricopa Medical Examiner’s Office serves two-thirds of the state, including Phoenix. With only 11 pathologists, the office was facing a backlog of cases. To be accredited, a medical examiner must complete 90 percent of its postmortem reports within 90 days. The county instituted loan repayment incentives to attract new staff and increase its capacity.
There are extenuating circumstances that can put an office behind.
“There are bones found in the desert, for example,” Moseley said. “Can you determine a cause of death from those bones found in a shallow grave?”
Moseley reports that the Maricopa performs about 8,000 autopsies a year. In his three years on the job, he has seen one or two cases that are outstanding after a year.
The New York Medical Examiner also turns most of its cases around between 24 to 48 hours, said Aja Worthy-Davis, executive director for public affairs for the agency. Asked if there was a case that stretched over six months, Worthy-Davis, said: “I can’t think of one.”
“We have considerably more medical examiners than most other jurisdictions so it’s not necessarily fair to compare,” added Worthy-Davis.
The Cook County Medical Examiner’s Office, which processes Chicago’s many autopsies, closes out its most complicated cases within three months.
Jonathan Arden, the president of NAME, says a variety of factors can slow down an autopsy, from toxicology testing to law enforcement holding back a report for investigative purposes.
“According to NAME, the industry standard is that you should be trying to get 90 percent of your reports done in 60 calendar days, and you really must get 90 percent of them done within 90 calendar days,” said Arden. “Unfortunately there are many instances where offices don’t meet that criterion.”
Arden attributes some of that delay to 64,000 opioid deaths a year, overwhelming an already limited pool of pathologists nationally.
“I don’t mean it as an excuse, but it’s a harsh reality,” said Arden.
But whether those factors play into the substantial delay in Hernandez’s case remain unclear, in part because the OMI won’t say. Its official statement notes that Hernandez “had complex medical conditions that necessitate extra analyses including specialty consultation.”
Sanchez declined to offer a timeline for when the autopsy would be ready.
Asked about whether the OMI was withholding the autopsy due to scrutiny against ICE in Hernandez’s death, Sanchez said the OMI is independent of the federal agency.
“It is not our job to hide why someone died,” she said.
According to a source close to the case, the OMI sent part of Hernandez’s brain off for testing to determine how far her HIV had advanced. Those results were supposed to be made available to Dr. Kris Sperry, who performed Hernandez’s independent autopsy. Sperry reportedly never received them.
Arden declined to comment on the delay in Hernandez’s autopsy, but noted it was not unusual or unheard of to see such a lag.
“It is outside of certainly the guidelines that are recommended or desired,” he said.
Image via Getty