Nearly a year later, a mother waits for closure in son’s death as NC medical examiner’s office faces challenges

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A mother’s been waiting almost a year for closure and answers. Kelley Blas is waiting for the official cause of her son’s death.

On June 21, 2023, Blas lost her son John Steen to an accidental overdose.

“We don’t know what exactly it was that took John, because we don’t have a toxicology report, we don’t have an autopsy, we don’t have a death certificate,” Blas said.

Blas said she never thought she’d be waiting upwards of 11 months to receive the documents. 

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said there are staffing troubles at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME.)

“NCDHHS has ongoing concerns about staff vacancies and high turnover at OCME, which have a negative impact on the system’s ability to maintain high-quality services for North Carolinians,” said NCDHHS.

Read more: Nearly a year later, a mother waits for closure in son’s death as NC medical examiner’s office faces challenges

Blas knows how much closure those reports could bring. She lost her older son David to an intentional overdose in 2017 after struggles with mental health.  Four months after David’s death, Blas said she received the papers she once again is waiting for.

“I only could open it up just to read the cause of death, which I knew what it was, but I needed, I needed to see it,” Blas said. “And once I saw it, I closed it and locked it up in a box and I haven’t really looked at it since then. But it just gave me a sense of just, okay, this part is done, I don’t have to think of my child being in a morgue.”

DHHS said each case is different, so there is no typical time frame for completing reports. 

Blas said the state medical examiner’s office told her John’s case is complete, but pending pathology review.

OCME has 15 permanent state positions that are vacant, equal to a 20% vacancy rate, according to NCDHHS. NCDHHS said that includes four vacant pathologist positions (out of 13.)

At the same time, the caseload is growing, with a 26% case increase from 2019 to 2023, according to NCDHHS. The department said it is undoubtedly influenced by a 69% rise in suspected overdose deaths.

“A backlog in OCME creates challenges for law enforcement, attorneys, our public health partners and for the families and communities left behind,” said NCDHHS.

Blas emphasizes she’s not the only one waiting for closure, hearing stories of similar or longer waits from other families who lost also lost children to overdoses.

“When you lose someone, that already causes suffering, and then when you have to compound that by extending these waits longer and longer, I just, I’m not sure that others really understand what that’s like,” Blas said.

NCDHHS pointed to several recommendations in Governor Roy Cooper’s proposed budget, including:

  • Support expanded capacity by adding 35 permanent, state-funded positions to the OCME workforce;    
  • Strengthen and support local medical examiners by increasing their payments from $200 to $400 per case and would more adequately cover the cost of their time and mileage to/from a scene;   
  • Ensure local medical examiners are adequately supplied with scene kits, cameras and other necessary equipment to do their job;   
  • Improve communication for families, law enforcement, attorneys and others about the status of a medical examiner case by developing a 24-hour call center and self-service portal to more timely deliver case status information;    
  • Allow OCME to fully staff second and weekend shifts by providing compensation for OCME staff who are assigned non-traditional work hours; and   
  • Increase OCME’s ability to handle more cases though the much-needed expansion/renovation of the OCME location in Raleigh.    

Read the article and watch the video on the CBS17 website.

Bill would limit public access to autopsy records

A new proposal would reduce public access to autopsy reports in North Carolina.

On Tuesday, state lawmakers tacked a slew of new provisions onto House Bill 250, which previously focused on reworking the offenses for distributing drugs.

Changes include no longer allowing the public access to photographs, video or audio recordings in autopsy reports. Current law generally allows people to inspect and examine these under supervision. Only certain public officials are allowed to obtain copies.

Written reports could be limited as well, by another section dealing with criminal investigation records. The change would expand the definition of those records, which are not typically public, to include autopsy records.

A spokesperson for the state agency charged with investigating suspicious deaths said the proposal “compromises the ability to conduct thousands of investigations and limits the ability to share information with families.”

Read more: Bill would limit public access to autopsy records

The bill would also change the makeup of the state’s office tasked with providing help to indigent defendants.


Currently, North Carolina death certificates, autopsy, investigation and toxicology reports are public records and once finalized may be obtained from the state’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), part of the Department of Health and Human Services.

This bill would designate records compiled by OCME as records of criminal investigation, which are not public under state law.

Currently, records of criminal investigations conducted by public law enforcement agencies and by the North Carolina Innocence Inquiry Commission are not public. These include records compiled by the North Carolina State Crime Laboratory. The bill would add to this definition records compiled by OCME. If the bill is passed, this would become effective July 1.

Sen. Danny Britt, a Robeson County Republican, presented the bill on Tuesday. He said the bill “clarifies that all photos and videos of autopsy shall not be released to the public while a crime is being investigated or prosecuted.”

“There may be some concern for availability of these autopsy reports and photos being made available for press and things like that,” Britt acknowledged. “What this does is it ensures that these items are not released outside of the chain that may improperly influence the jury and, again, potentially lead to a case being overturned on appeal where a death is involved.”

He also said that the medical examiner’s records that the bill would treat as criminal investigation records would be accessible to the public at the conclusion of a criminal investigation and prosecution.

The bill would apply “just to those particular cases that are being prosecuted criminally,” not to other cases, Britt said in response to a question from Democratic Sen. Sydney Batch.

He also said these restrictions would apply to family members, though district attorneys could sit down with the family and show the records.


When someone dies in a violent, suspicious or unexpected way in North Carolina, part-time medical examiners inspect the bodies. If the cause of death is not clear, they request autopsies.

An investigation by The Charlotte Observer and News & Observer found that it often takes many months — and sometimes more than a year — for autopsies to be completed. That can cause financial crises for families who need autopsies and death certificates to access life insurance and other assets they’re entitled to inherit.

The system is backlogged chiefly because there are too many bodies and too few pathologists and toxicologists to perform autopsies, the newspapers’ investigation found.

The medical examiner system faces challenges, and “this bill as currently written, would make those challenges much, much more difficult,” Mark Benton, chief deputy secretary for health with DHHS, told lawmakers Tuesday.

Asked for further details on concerns with the bill, DHHS spokesperson Kelly Haight Connor wrote that “the proposed language weakens the independent nature of North Carolina’s medical examiner system, compromises the ability to conduct thousands of investigations and limits the ability to share information with families.”

In addition to the changes on public access, the bill adds “continuing education” training requirements for county medical examiners. It also details how examiners can request and obtain a deceased person’s personal belongings.

Haight Connor said DHHS had ongoing concerns with staff vacancies and high turnover at the OCME and “any changes in process or caseloads needs to be thoughtfully considered given these staffing concerns.”

Autopsy reports from shootings and other violent incidents are often requested by the news media to glean details that otherwise may have not been released on what occurred in the incidents.

South Carolina does not allow access to autopsy reports; its state Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that these reports are not public records and fall under privacy provisions of the state’s open records law.

In 2020, a bill shielding some death investigation records from the public was vetoed by Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. The General Assembly currently is controlled by Republicans and has a veto-proof supermajority.

Britt said the new bill was being worked on and should be ready by next Tuesday for votes.

District attorneys want to ”narrow this down to a workable piece that involves just the pending criminal cases,” said Chuck Spahos, a lobbyist for the N.C. Conference of District Attorneys.


The bill also cuts the membership of North Carolina’s Commission on Indigent Defense Services from 13 members to nine.

It also grants two new appointments to the commission to the chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court and four to House and Senate leaders. All of those offices are currently held by Republicans.

It cuts the governor’s one appointment and that of various state associations. Gov. Roy Cooper is a Democrat.

Read the original article on the Raleigh News & Observer website.

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