A medical examiner with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation was suspended for two weeks after complaints that she made inappropriate comments while handling the remains of a dead woman.
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Dr. Sandra Thomas, who has never faced any other complaints since joining the agency in 2014, has expressed regret and has returned to work, according to the GBI. Officials declined to make her available for an interview.
During a March 19 autopsy, Thomas asked another doctor at the GBI’s morgue near Decatur if she knew how to do a “Muslim autopsy,” according to records obtained by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The other doctor said Thomas then lifted the neck of the dead woman and made a wailing sound called an ululation. Since the times of ancient Greece and Egypt, ululation has signified times of both mourning and celebration. Today, it is commonly heard at funerals and weddings in the Middle East.
Thomas repeated the question, and sound, with another doctor, records say. The other doctors both found the remarks inappropriate, records say.
Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Jonathan Eisenstat reported the incident to internal affairs. During an investigation authorized by agency director Vic Reynolds, Thomas expressed regret for her actions. The GBI suspended her from April 29 to May 10 without pay and had her sign a document acknowledging that another inappropriate action will result in her termination, records show.
"Your comments were extremely unprofessional, disrespectful and insensitive to those around you," Reynolds wrote in a March 29 letter. The GBI did not name the person whose remains were being examined during the autopsy, but said she had not been Muslim.
The AJC reviewed two years's worth of complaints related to the morgue and found two cases where workers were disciplined for conduct related to autopsies. In December 2018, one employee took a photo of another smiling while posing with the severed head of an elderly Clayton County murder victim. Those employees were both fired. The three other complaints were not related to autopsies. Several Georgia coroners told the AJC that all the GBI medical examiners they've dealt with are very professional and respectful of the dead.
Edward Ahmed Mitchell, a former prosecutor and executive director of the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said he’s always been impressed by the professionalism of the GBI, but finds Thomas’ case extremely upsetting.
“A two-week suspension for playing with a dead body while mocking a faith community seems like a remarkably light punishment,” Mitchell said. “If playing with a dead body during an autopsy is not a fireable offense by itself, I do not know what is.”
The handful of employees interviewed in the internal investigation said they didn’t believe Thomas was motivated by ill will toward Muslims, but all found her actions inappropriate. One morgue worker who was offended wondered if the joke was a tone-deaf attempt at dealing with the stress of the always-busy morgue.
Thomas told the agency’s internal affairs unit that she had heard the joke years earlier when she was a medical resident in Richmond, Va., and she thought of it randomly during the autopsy. The joke wasn’t meant to disparage the Muslim faith, she told investigators.
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“I made an absurd comment about a nonexistent autopsy,” Thomas told Fred Mays, director of the Office of Professional Standards, according to a transcript. “How does that degrade another person’s faith?”
“When you’re pulling the neck of a torso, and you’re making this sound,” Mays responded, “that’s poking fun and that’s degrading — you know that’s degrading.”
Thomas said: "I think it's in the eye of the beholder."