Medical examiner takes over a year to return autopsy reports in deaths of children

Three local child homicide investigations still unsolved

PENDER COUNTY, N.C. (WECT) - It’s disturbing to learn about the murder of a single child. But WECT recently learned three children ages five and younger died by homicide in Pender County in a single year. All of those cases remain unsolved.

One of children, 5-year-old Paitin Fields, made headlines after she was rushed to the hospital after being sexually assaulted and strangled in 2017. She did not survive. Three years later, no one has been charged with her murder.

But the other two cases, also from 2017, never made the news.

WECT learned about them while reading Pender County’s Child Fatality Prevention Report. The 2019 report, which was not publicly released until 2020, notes that the Child Fatality Prevention Team reviewed eight cases from 2017 and 2018. Three of those deaths remain under investigation as homicides.

In addition to Paitin Field’s death, another child, Leighton Fisher, died after falling and hitting her head by the pool. According to officials, Fisher was found dead by a babysitter during naptime. That case remains under investigation by the Pender County Sheriff’s Office, and it is not entirely clear why the case is being investigated as a homicide. Homicide is defined as one human being causing the death of another, and not all homicides are considered murder.

The third case is under the jurisdiction of the Burgaw Police Department. It involves 2-year-old Keith Stephens, who died of blunt force trauma and a lacerated liver. Police have so far declined to give us any information on the circumstances surrounding his death, citing their ongoing investigation.

Autopsy Delays

At least one reason for the lengthy delays resolving these cases and making arrests is the long waiting period for autopsy results. These deaths happened in 2017, but in some of the cases the autopsy reports were not returned to investigators until 2019.

“It is an usually long a time to not know cause of death for upwards of a year. That’s a really exceptional circumstance in my experience,” said Pender County District Attorney Ben David. He noted that having the autopsy results as quickly as possible is important for breaking a case.

“It’s when there’s an investigative need and the results might change how you’re looking at the death from accidental to intentional that we obviously want to know those things right away,” David said.

Despite our somewhat substantial population, and the fact that New Hanover Regional Medical Center is the regional hub for medicine in Southeastern North Carolina, autopsies are not conducted here. When an autopsy is warranted, bodies are sent to Greenville, Jacksonville, or Chapel Hill. That distance creates delays in the initial phases of the investigation, and can also create problems at trial.

“We need witnesses to come testify about those [autopsy] results. Logistically, it’s much much easier if they are locally here then if they have a four hour round-trip for instance to come from the Triangle to testify about those results, or from two hours away in Jacksonville round-trip, or four hours away from Greenville round-trip,” David explained.

He said when long periods of time pass between a crime and a trial, key witnesses – especially in cases of intrafamily violence – can change their stories. David said in some cases, witnesses “circle the wagons” or harden to a view of what happened. In other cases, divorces can happen, and that dynamic can create additional challenges for putting witnesses on the stand.

While there is more to these unsolved child homicide cases than delayed autopsy results, David said he has urged the Medical Examiner’s office in the past and would urge them again to strongly consider putting a medical examiner with forensic specialty in Wilmington.

“What will decide whether we can put [these cases] into a courtroom... [is] whether we have enough evidence to go forward. And that requires physical evidence and it requires witnesses testifying,” David said.

Medical Examiner’s Office Responds

When asked about the long delays getting autopsy results for the 2017 child homicides, and the possibility of bringing a forensic medical examiner to Wilmington, the North Carolina Medical Examiner’s Office provided the following response:

“NC’s statewide medical examiner (ME) system uses a regional model (a nationally recommended approach). We’ve made improvements to our system through the years, including infrastructure investments, to support, enhance and expand the existing regional structure for national accreditation standards.”

“Each of our ME cases/patients has a unique story with its own set of unique circumstances. It takes a varying range of information, investigation, analysis, and interpretation to accurately certify the cause and manner of death. Cases involving children and/or suspected violence are more complex in nature and require involvement by law enforcement and other governmental agencies. While this sometimes delays the reporting process, its intention is to produce a thorough, professional, and complete report into the cause and manner of death for every one of our patients.”

Regarding the remaining five cases that were reviewed by Pender County’s Child Fatality Prevention Team in 2019, all but one involved medical issues that resulted in the death of newborn babies. There was one remaining case where the cause of death was unspecified and details remained unclear.

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