Families delay funerals as Alameda County Coroner faces autopsy backlog

Families of recent homicide victims are putting burial plans on hold while they wait for the Alameda County Coroner's office to complete autopsies needed for the investigations.

The sheriff's office says they are facing a backlog of cases, and the recent string of killings in Oakland is only making matters worse.

"The recent spike in homicides in Oakland and in our other county jurisdictions has been problematic for us," said Lt. Ray Kelly, an Alameda County Sheriff's Office spokesman.

Kelly said that on Thursday morning alone, there were 35 autopsies pending, with a total wait list of 90 decedents. He says a big challenge is a staffing shortage. 

"One of our chief pathologists just took the job somewhere else. We've had a hard time keeping forensic pathologists here in Alameda County," Kelly said. "They can make the same amount of money in another location, have less of a caseload, spend less time in court."

Kelly said finding replacement staff has been difficult, and Alameda County has had to bring doctors in from outside the area.

"We have a shortage of forensic pathologists, people qualified to do forensic medical exams, particularly in the case of homicides and violent crime where we need to do certain types of medical exams to recover evidence," said Kelly said.

"My understanding is there's only less than 1,000 in the whole country. And I know as of late, we've been flying in doctors to help us with our backlog of autopsies," said Kelly.

Delays have caused anguish for some victims' families. 

The double homicide near the Oakland Islamic Center Monday took the lives of two Muslim men, where the Islamic faith requires people to be buried within 24 hours if possible. 

Kelly said the coroner's office tries to respect families' religious requirements, but investigators also need to collect evidence to ensure the families' get justice.

"We have one chance to get this one chance to get it right. We want to get it right and at the same time, manage and balance the other side of this equation, which is a family and the religious beliefs," said Kelly. 

The victims in Monday's homicide are scheduled for expedited autopsies tomorrow.

"We usually have a 24-hour policy on releasing the body after an autopsy, but we'll try to get that expedited," said Kelly.