JOHNSON CITY - East Tennessee State University's new forensic center already is helping expedite autopsy and toxicology reports necessary for the region's judicial system, officials said Friday during the long-desired facility's grand opening.
"From the DA's office perspective, we cannot function without toxicology and the forensic center here," 1st Judicial District Attorney General Tony Clark said. "Over the last 12-13 years that I've been a prosecutor, the number of cases we've been able to prosecute because of the toxicology department and forensic pathology department ... is in the hundreds of thousands.
"The opening of this center is going to make it easier on us. There's going to be a lot less wait time on some of the toxicology reports and autopsies. It's just a joy that they've been able to do this. That it's taken 20 years to do it is the sad part."
Completed with about $6.5 million from federal, state and county sources, the new center in the refurbished Building 6 at Veterans Affairs Medical Center, Mountain Home, provides about 42,000 square feet of space for the university's forensic pathology and forensic toxicology laboratories.
With room to conduct up to three autopsies at once and storage coolers to accommodate about 20 cases, the new forensic pathology area is a major improvement from the medical school's former labs in neighboring buildings at the VA.
Supporting the state's upper eight counties, the center had seen a sharp increase in the number of autopsies performed in recent years, prompting the university to start planning replacement facilities in the 1990s. The old labs were intended to accommodate just 30 cases each year, often contributing to a backlog of autopsies, since the university sees between 250-350 cases each year.
"There were families that were very much in agony because there was such a backlog at this facility (the old center)," former U.S. Rep. Bill Jenkins said in Friday's ceremony, noting that a resolution was a federal, state and local responsibility. "It (the new center) has already eliminated those difficulties."
For the first time, the new center brought the forensic pathology and forensic toxicology labs under one roof, allowing for more efficient specimen transfer and collaboration. The toxicology lab was housed beneath the seats in Memorial Center on the main ETSU campus. Both forensic toxicology and forensic pathology have been using the new center since late January.
Dr. Philip Bagnell, dean of ETSU's James H. Quillen College of Medicine, said the center's staff has been keeping pace with the region's toxicology and pathology demands.
"We don't have all the equipment yet, and that's not related to faulty planning," Bagnell said. "That's related to some difficulty with federal regulations on some of the equipment, which changed. With that exception, things are moving along."
The center's facilities include an autopsy suite containing two fully equipped work stations and room for a third, as well as a second autopsy room for special autopsies, including those requiring decontamination.
Bagnell said having the lab's capability and two forensic pathologists on staff had made a huge impact on the college's work.
"It just makes a real difference for us, and it should make a real difference for the community," he said. "We would hope that they can expect timely reports and (bodies) getting back with their loved ones. That's the purpose of this."
Washington County Mayor George Jaynes, one of several local, state, federal officials who worked together to find funding for the center, recalled the days when a lone ETSU pathologist was working long hours in an inadequate lab as cases piled up.
"He had no place to work," Jaynes said. "After visiting that site several times, I knew that people were keeping dogs in places bigger than he had to work. It was pitiful.
"But it's great that it's come to this today, because I really support the forensic pathology. It could keep an innocent person from being convicted for something they didn't do or a guilty person from going free.
"It's good that they can have quick closure on stuff like that."