South Carolina State University police did not immediately notify state investigators of the sudden death of a student last April, apparently circumventing a law that calls for expert examinations of campus deaths, according to a Post and Courier investigation.
Additionally, the Orangeburg County coroner did not perform an autopsy, which also might have answered lingering questions about the student’s death.
In this vacuum, family members and friends were left in the dark as to what exactly happened to Amya Carr, a 21-year-old senior and co-captain of the school’s dance team, the Champagne Dancers.
Carr died April 18 after students rushed her to Orangeburg Regional Medical Center, according to a campus police report.
Doctors tried to resuscitate her “but her lungs were already filled with too much fluid from the severe asthma attack she was having,” the report said.
Under state law, the campus police chief must “immediately” notify the state Division of Law Enforcement of a death resulting from an on-campus incident. SLED agents are then appointed lead investigators.
This is required under law Jessica Horton of South Carolina, which is named after an 18-year-old college student who died after falling from a sixth-floor dorm window in 2002 at the University of South Carolina. The purpose of the law was to ensure experienced and professional review of campus-related death and sexual assault cases, its drafters said.
But university police chief Timothy Taylor did not contact SLED about the death for more than five weeks, said Renee Wunderlich, the agency’s director of public information.
School police argue they were not required to immediately report the case because Carr died in hospital and not on campus, said Sam Watson, director of university relations.
Watson said the school conducted an internal investigation and then asked SLED to review its findings. An SLED investigation is underway. Agency officials said they could not discuss details of the case while the investigation remains open.
The Jessica Horton Law does not state that the death must occur on campus to trigger notification to SLED. Rather, it states that notification is required “if there is a death resulting from an incident occurring on the property of the establishment”.
The campus police report says officers were sent to Carr’s dorm after her death to secure the space as a possible crime scene. Officers found nothing wrong and no signs of foul play were noted on his body. This led authorities to conclude that she died of natural causes due to an asthma attack, according to the incident report.
It’s unclear how often SLED has been called in to investigate deaths on South Carolina campuses in recent years, as the agency said it doesn’t specifically track those cases. A week before Carr’s death in April, Charleston College police alerted SLED after a 19-year-old student was found dead in a college dorm. Authorities later determined that heart problems aggravated by a COVID-19 infection caused the young man’s death.
“Crisis at school”
Carr and her family are originally from Colombia. She graduated from Lower Richland High School.
Her mother, Valencia Canzater, said her daughter was diagnosed with asthma as a baby, but had no serious complications until 2019, her second year at university.
That’s when Carr moved into a room at Hugine Suites, a mixed-use housing complex. Canzater said he noticed her daughter’s asthma was getting worse.
Two weeks before Carr died, she had a bout of asthma that left her passed out on her bedroom floor. Fortunately, her dance coach and another member of staff were able to take her to the nearest hospital.
“She was constantly having flare-ups in school,” Canzater said. “More than she had when she came home.”
The night before she died, Carr told her mother she had asthma issues. Instead of going to the hospital, she decided to use her nebulizer. The machine can inhale medication, and Carr had been using it more and more since moving to Hugine Suites, Canzater said.
Police incident reports also noted that Carr called her mother several times that night to complain that her asthma was getting worse and she was not breathing well.
Moldy parts are a known cause of asthma flare-ups. In the past two years, the school has received more than 30 reports of mold problems in Hugine Suites, according to records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.
When asked if the mold may have exacerbated Carr’s asthma, a university official said federal privacy laws prevent the school from commenting on students’ medical conditions.
“We see mold like any other institution with a lot of buildings,” Watson said.
Although the cause of Carr’s asthma flare-ups is still unknown, much of the confusion surrounding his death could have been avoided with an autopsy.
“It was definitely a coroner’s case from the very beginning,” said Gary Watts, former Richland County coroner and executive director of the South Carolina Coroner’s Association.
Bobbi Jo O’Neal, Coroner for Charleston County, added: “In Charleston County, we would normally autopsy anyone of this age leaving a college campus.”
O’Neal also noted that Carr’s peers transported her in a private vehicle, an unusual circumstance and another reason to dig deeper.
Under South Carolina law, death inquests are required when a person dies in a suspicious or unusual manner, or when they are apparently in good health.
But there are gray areas. Autopsies are only necessary in the event of a child’s death and the procedures should be performed as soon as possible by a pathologist with forensic training. But when an adult dies, the decision is less clear.
It’s usually “discretionary for the coroner,” Watts said.
Watts said state law does not specify what a suspicious death is. “But if I had been the investigator on this case, it would have been something that I certainly would have felt necessary to do and worth it for them to consider having (Carr) investigated,” he said. he declares.
Orangeburg County coroner Samuetta Marshall defended her position in a July 21 email to The Post and Courier, though she offered few details.
“The answer is simple,” Marshall wrote of his decision not to order an autopsy. “After careful examination and investigation of his medical history, an autopsy was not deemed necessary.”
Dr. Thomas Beaver, a medical examiner at the Medical University of South Carolina, said the coroner’s system in South Carolina is one of the worst he’s seen after working as a medical examiner and medical examiner in California , Texas and Florida.
“I don’t know what the coroners here have in terms of guidelines,” Beaver said. “Someone has to write them down.”
Beaver wrote practice guidelines for medical examiners in Daytona Beach, Florida. He eventually had these guidelines codified as the state’s administrative code.
“I think that’s the kind of thing that needs to happen in South Carolina,” Beaver said. “It would help coroners be more consistent in their practice and the way they deal with cases.”
O’Neal said she thinks coroners in smaller counties might do fewer autopsies because of funding constraints. But money shouldn’t prevent a deeper look at a person’s death.
“If I think the individual is best served by having an autopsy ordered, then I will order it regardless of the level of funding,” O’Neal said. “That’s what you should do.”
Although Carr is currently buried at Bethel Baptist Church in Blythewood, an autopsy is still possible. This process would involve the exhumation of his body.
If investigators suspected mold, Beaver said, they could take samples of mold or other allergens from his dorm and compare them to any mold DNA found in his lung tissue.
“Mould is like many different species,” he said. “You can fingerprint the mold with DNA like you could anything else.”
But Beaver warned Carr’s asthma attacks could have been triggered in other ways.
“There might be another plant growing outside the residence,” Beaver said. “To be scientific about it, you have to establish that there was mold in his body at some point.”
Mourning the unknown
Since Carr’s death, Canzater and his two sons have found it nearly impossible to go a day without shedding tears.
“I’m afraid God may call me home for mourning my daughter so hard,” Canzater said, referring to the constant chest pains she’s had since Carr’s death. “I cry every day.”
But knowing more about the reasons for his death would offer a little relief.
“I don’t have peace of mind,” Canzater said. “I don’t know how she died.”