Navajo tribe seeking approval of autopsy funds 5-29-07

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Navajo prosecutor Leonard Livingston needs to know why a death occurred before bringing a case before a judge and jury. Lately, though, he's had trouble getting that crucial information.

That's because the office that provides most autopsy services for the Navajo Nation - the New Mexico Office of the Medical Investigator - stopped doing so in April 2006 because the tribe has failed to pay its bills, said OMI associate director Tim Stepetic.

The tribe's bill peaked at $300,000 that month. Stepetic said his office received some payments last summer but no other payments have been made since July. The Navajos' current outstanding tab is $254,000, he said.

“We saw no other course than to place a moratorium on Navajo Nation autopsies,” he told The Associated Press.

Livingston said the lack of available autopsies has been problematic, no more so than when families have had questions about how their loved ones died. “I didn't have an answer for them,” he said.

A measure in the Navajo Nation Council that would have appropriated more than $275,000 for outstanding autopsy services failed twice last year. Once, it was tabled in the council. During the next legislative session, the funding measure died because the sponsor didn't show up.

Officials for the tribe - the nation's largest, spanning over parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah - now are counting on the council's summer session this July to get the funds OK'd.

“Not to blame the council, but we are at the mercy of the council,” said Samson Cowboy, director of public safety for the tribe.

Cowboy also contends the OMI overcharged the Navajo Nation by at least $10,000 for body bags - $100 each for 100 bags. He said he is trying to receive some credit for that.

“Once we clear that up, then we are going to pay a little bit more,” he said.

Stepetic disputes Cowboy's body-bag claim. Stepetic said the bags cost a little more than $8 each and the tribe never has discussed the issue with the OMI.

“There's a million things you can go into when you want to talk your way around a quarter-million dollar bill,” Stepetic said. “I can't imagine how they can ever possibly come up with something like that.”

The $254,000 has been written off by the University of New Mexico, which administers state funding to the OMI, but Stepetic said that doesn't excuse the tribe's bill. He said he feels the tribe's public safety division has been sincere in its efforts to pay its tab, and setting up a payment plan is an option.

He has offered to meet with the appropriate tribal officials to do so, but he said he hasn't heard back.

“It's kind of frustrating, but I think the money matter is second to the general requirements for a good death investigation system on the Navajo Nation,” he said.

The FBI picks up the most extreme homicide cases on the Navajo Nation, and handles autopsies in those cases. But the tribe handles investigations of other death cases without federal help, which can include those that are drug-related, accidental or suicides.

Some Navajo criminal investigators are trained to determine the cause of death; for others, they sometimes have to make the best guess, which doesn't hold up in court, Livingston said.

Judges and juries “want docs to make the determination,” he said.

If investigators come across a body in the field, and they don't suspect the death to be suspicious, the body is turned over to the family, said Douglas Joe, a criminal investigations supervisor for the Shiprock district.

Without an autopsy, “we would never know” whether criminal charges could have been pursued, Joe said.

Livingston said he has about 10 pending cases that he's reviewing to see what can be done without a cause of death.

The tribe can take other avenues, such as contracting services to coroners' offices in Arizona or relying on hospitals to perform an autopsy if a person dies there, Livingston said.

But if the tribe needed to turn to the New Mexico OMI, it couldn't because of the outstanding bill.

“If it happens on the reservation, and it's a tribal case, and no other agencies can do the case, then that's my problem,” Livingston said.

Even if homicide cases generally are being covered, Stepetic said there certainly are some that are being missed.

The problem also makes it difficult for the tribe to come up with reliable statistics for public health issues. How, for example, would the tribe know whether methamphetamine-related deaths are rising or falling without autopsy information, Stepetic said.

“They don't have a picture of why people are dying on the reservation,” he said.

Livingston agrees, and adds that minus an autopsy, the criminal justice system on the reservation is not effective.

“We're not serving the needs of the public,” he said. “We're not bringing justice to the communities.”