Joe and Donna Turner were certain their daughter's shooting death in 2000 was not self-inflicted, but without a death certificate saying as much they found it impossible to persuade law enforcement to consider other possibilities.
No autopsy was conducted at the time, but after financing a private autopsy in 2009, the Elmore City couple were finally able to have Chanda Turner's manner of death changed from suicide to undetermined.
The change was enough to inspire Garvin County Sheriff Larry Rhodes to open a homicide investigation a dozen years after Chanda Turner's death.
Rhodes, as well as Tim Kuykendall, who was the county's district attorney when she died, said they believed the death was suspicious but that they were hamstrung by the medical examiner's report.
“When you take a case to trial and you present it to a jury, and you ask them to find someone guilty and your own star witness says, well, I'm not even sure there's a homicide — you won't win a case like that,” Tim Kuykendall, district attorney at the time of her death, told The Oklahoman in December.
‘Risky' autopsy behavior
Data provided by the Oklahoma medical examiner's office reveals that autopsies are performed in only about 3 percent of the state's reported deaths.
A report by the National Center for Health Statistics shows the national autopsy rate decreased from 19.1 percent of all deaths in 1972 to 8.5 percent in 2007.
Oklahoma was one of several states identified in a 2009 report by the nonprofit group ProPublica as engaging in “risky” autopsy behavior.
The state's chief investigator at the time told ProPublica a severe staffing shortage prohibits the medical examiner's office from autopsying possible suicides or alleged murder-suicides and often people aged 40 and older who die of unexplained causes.
That practice could lead to murderers walking free and important public health data going unreported, the organization reported.
In its 2007 analysis, Oklahoma ranked in the bottom five of the nation's busiest medical examiner's offices in terms of the rate of autopsies performed.
Dr. Eric Pfeifer, chief medical examiner, said his office simply does not have the staff to do more than it already does.
Five forensic pathologists were tasked with examining 22,000 cases in 2012 alone, Pfeifer told The Oklahoman last week. It was one of several reasons the office lost its accreditation in 2009.
“We're not even doing autopsies on cases we probably ought to be doing autopsies on,” he said. “We simply don't have the staff or the space to run that many cases through so we can't achieve the performance standards. We're really kind of at the max.”
Pfeifer said the addition of five new pathologists this year should help increase the number of autopsies performed.