As much-anticipated results of toxicology examinations in two high-profile Fresno County death cases remain pending, officials and medical experts have provided insights into why such examinations take weeks, or even months.
The cases of interest involve Dylan Noble, a 19-year-old man who was fatally shot by Fresno police near Clinton and Fowler avenues on June 25, and Guy Birrenkott, 57, who collapsed and died Jan. 9, reportedly while trying to break up a party at a home he owned in northeast Fresno.
The death of Noble prompted protests that police used excessive force and demands that police release body camera evidence of the shooting earlier than Chief Jerry Dyer had originally intended – which the chief ended up agreeing to do. Birrenkott’s friends and family seek closure by understanding the cause of death.
Officials agree that toxicology tests are complex and lengthy. They involve an analysis of blood and tissue from organs such as the liver, kidney and stomach, as well as gastric contents, hair and bile, according to the federally funded website Forensic Sciences Simplified. Toxicologists seek to understand whether the victim was under the influence of alcohol, narcotics or something else, and also attempt to determine whether an underlying medical condition contributed to the death.
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In the case of Birrenkott, Fresno County sheriff’s spokesman Tony Botti said a determination of the cause of death has been delayed because Birrenkott’s heart was sent to experts for analysis.
Lt. Mark Padilla of the Fresno County Sheriff’s Office, who oversees coroner operations, said basic toxicology tests are sent from the county coroner’s office to a laboratory in Visalia, where tests usually take about three weeks. If there are complications, tissue and blood samples must be sent to other laboratories for further analysis. That can take up to two additional months.
It can take even longer, warns Dr. David Hadden, the former Fresno County coroner, because laboratories sometimes don’t immediately begin examinations when they receive samples.
Hadden said that for reasons of cost effectiveness, the labs sometimes wait until they have multiple samples from different cases to analyze before running tests. Once tests are finished, they are returned to their place of origin, but Padilla cautioned that in the case of Fresno County, the two pathologists in the coroner’s office must still conclude their own analysis before writing a final report.
However, the report won’t always be the last word, because in some cases no cause of death can be definitively established.
The College of American Pathologists cited the case of singer Amy Winehouse, who died in 2011, as an example. While acute alcohol poisoning was cited as a cause, there were multiple other drugs in her system, clouding the result.
Officials in the profession are aware of the public’s interest in learning of a cause of death in a timely manner in such cases.
Hadden, who served several terms as Fresno County coroner before the office was folded into the Sheriff’s Office in 2014, once bemoaned the difficulties that television shows such as the long-running CBS show “Crime Scene Investigation” caused him.
On CSI, it is common for detectives to solve a case shortly after pathologists determine results during a commercial break. The reality is very different, Hadden noted.