PRESCOTT VALLEY - A dispute between a bereaved family and the Yavapai County Medical Examiner's Office has caught the attention of a former state senator who fought to help families that suffered losses but were unable to get closure.
Jessica Tolly died at her home on Dec. 20. Her unattended death was from natural causes - a defective artery in her heart caused a heart attack - but the family of the 28-year-old didn't know that.
In order to deal with a deceased person's finances and other affairs necessary to close out an estate, survivors need a death certificate.
But weeks passed before the Tolly family could get Jessica's.
"I feel violated by this county in a big way," Jessica's mother Janine said.
She said the delay was doubly frustrating because both she and Jessica volunteered their time helping the sheriff's office, working in the mobile command center during DUI saturation patrols.
"I feel this is an affront to me, after everything I've done for this community," she said.
Janine turned to now-retired state Sen. Linda Gray for help. In 2010, after hearing from a constituent with a similar problem, Gray sponsored legislation to require medical examiners to issue death certificates within 72 hours of the examination of a deceased person. The law allows the medical examiner to sign a certificate listing the cause of death as "pending" if the determination can't be made in time.
Addressing the county Board of Supervisors at its Jan. 7 meeting, Gray said, "I hope (the medical examiner's) answer is not 'We have not done an examination, therefore, we don't have a time limit.'"
Janine also spoke, asking for an investigation into the delay, which, she said, "caused further grief for our family."
The medical examiner's office told her an autopsy would be done on Dec. 26, Janine said, but then "they changed their plans and did not notify us." She said that when the family doctor and funeral home contacted the medical examier's office, they were told there would be no autopsy, but the office never called Jessica's parents to inform them.
Janine said the family paid a private pathologist, at a cost of $1,500, to do an autopsy on Jessica when they were told the county would not. That's how they learned about the defective artery.
Alan Vignernon, the county's human resources director, oversaw the medical examiner's office until the recent hiring of Mark Fischione, M.D., as chief medical examiner. He said the exam had been done, and in a timely fashion.
Vigneron said that the medical examiner's office had met its legal obligation - that the medical examiner had signed the death certificate within 72 hours after the exam.
But, he said, that signature alone doesn't make the document available to a family. "The issuance of a death certificate is (made after) a request from someone to the Vital Records Department, which is a separate part of the county," he said.
He said another problem prevented that office from issuing the death certificate: a delay caused by a software problem in a state-level computer system. "We had a problem with the state system ... that manages the death-certificate process," he said. "As soon as it was up, we printed the death certificate.
"It was not operating for about a week or 10 days," he added.
But Laura Oxley, spokesperson for the Arizona Department of Health Services, said she knew of no computer downtime.
"I don't think the state system was down," Oxley said. "I am pretty sure that's incorrect."
Gray, who was still in office when the situation unfolded, said she had asked an aide to check on that claim and was told, "it was down for maybe an hour, over the weekend."
The day after Janine and Gray spoke to the Board of Supervisors on Jan. 7, Vignernon said, the system returned to service and they were able to issue the death certificate.
Janine doesn't believe that's a coincidence. "Are you kidding?" she asked. "If (Gray) had not gone before the board, I'd probably still be waiting."
She said she asked the county to reimburse her for the cost to pay the private pathologist, but was turned down.
Gray said the intent of the law was to get families a death certificate, and following the letter of the law didn't meet the spirit of the law.
"If they signed it but failed to send it to the state's Vital Records, then they're in neglect of the law," she said. "To let it sit there for a few days, that wasn't the right thing to do."
Since she doesn't believe there was a computer problem, Gray places the blame "up here, because Vital Records in Phoenix was active and processing and getting it out."
Janine said her primary purpose was to keep other families from dealing with a situation she claims was not caused by a computer glitch, but by a lack of compassion.
"Emotionally and otherwise, it's hard enough losing a child, losing a family member, losing someone you love," she said. "You don't need this on top of it."