South Carolina State University police failed to immediately notify state investigators about the sudden death of a student last April, apparently sidestepping a law that calls for expert reviews of campus deaths, a Post and Courier investigation found.

What’s more, the Orangeburg County coroner didn’t perform an autopsy, which might also have answered lingering questions about the student’s death.

In this vacuum, family members and friends were left in the dark about exactly what 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 Regional Medical Center in Orangeburg, a campus police report said.

Doctors tried to resuscitate her “but her lungs had already been filled with too much fluid from the bad asthma attack she was having,” the report said.

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Under state law, the chief of campus police must “immediately” notify the State Law Enforcement Division about a death resulting from an incident on campus. SLED agents are then appointed as the lead investigators.

That is required under South Carolina’s Jessica Horton Act, which is named for an 18-year-old student who died after falling from a sixth-story dorm window in 2002 at the University of South Carolina. The goal of the law was to ensure an experienced and professional review of campus-related deaths and sexual assault cases, its drafters have said.

But the university’s police chief, Timothy Taylor, didn’t contact SLED about the death for more than five weeks, said Renee Wunderlich, director of public information for the agency.

School police maintain that they weren’t required to immediately report the case because Carr died in the hospital, not on campus, said Sam Watson, director of university relations.

Watson said the school did an internal investigation and then asked SLED to review its findings. A SLED investigation is ongoing. Officials with the agency said they could not discuss specifics of the case while the inquiry remains open.

The Jessica Horton Act does not state that the death must occur on campus to trigger notification to SLED. Rather, it mandates that notification is required “if there is a death resulting from an incident occurring on the property of the institution.”

The campus police report indicates that officers were sent to Carr’s dorm room after her death to secure the space as a possible crime scene. Officers found nothing out of place, and no signs of foul play were noted on her body. That led authorities to conclude she had died from natural causes due to an asthma attack, the incident report stated.

It’s unclear how often SLED has been called in to investigate campus deaths around South Carolina in recent years, as the agency said it does not specifically track those cases. A week before Carr’s death in April, College of Charleston police alerted SLED after a 19-year-old student was found dead in a residence hall there. Authorities later determined that heart problems aggravated by a COVID-19 infection caused the young man’s death.

‘Flare-ups at school’

Carr and her family are originally from Columbia. She graduated from Lower Richland High School.

Her mother, Valencia Canzater, said her daughter was diagnosed with asthma as an infant but didn’t have severe complications until 2019, her sophomore year in college.

That’s when Carr moved to a room in Hugine Suites, a co-ed housing complex. Canzater said she noticed her daughter’s asthma worsen.

Two weeks before Carr died, she had an asthma flare-up that left her passed out on her room floor. Luckily, her dance coach and a fellow staff member were able to get her to the nearest hospital.

“She was constantly having flare-ups at school,” Canzater said. “More than she had when she would come home to me.”

The night before her death, Carr told her mother she was having problems with her asthma. Instead of going to the hospital, she decided to use her nebulizer machine. The machine allows medicine to be inhaled, and Carr was using it more and more since moving to Hugine Suites, Canzater said.

The police incident reports also noted that Carr had called her mother several times that night to complain that her asthma was getting worse and that she was not breathing well.

Moldy rooms are a known cause of asthma flareups. During the past two years, the school received more than 30 reports about mold issues in Hugine Suites, according to records obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

When asked whether mold could have exacerbated Carr’s asthma, a university official said federal privacy laws prevent the school from commenting about students’ medical conditions.

“We see mold just like any other institution with a lot of buildings,” Watson said.

Autopsy needed?

While the cause of Carr’s asthma flare-ups are still unknown, much of the confusion surrounding her death could have been avoided with an autopsy.

“This was definitely a coroner’s case from the very beginning,” said Gary Watts, former Richland County coroner and executive director for the South Carolina Coroner’s Association.

Bobbi Jo O’Neal, Charleston County coroner, added: “In Charleston County, we would normally autopsy anyone of that age coming off of 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 investigations are required when a person dies in any suspicious or unusual manner, or when in apparent good health.

But there are gray areas. Autopsies are only required when a child dies, and the procedures must 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 to the coroner,” Watts said.

Watts said state law doesn’t spell out what a suspicious death is.

“But had I been the investigator on that case, that would have been something that I would have certainly felt like was necessary to do and is worthwhile for them to consider having (Carr) examined,” he said.

Samuetta Marshall, Orangeburg County’s coroner, defended her position in a July 21 email sent to The Post and Courier, though she offered few specifics.

“The answer is simple,” Marshall wrote about her decision not to seek an autopsy. “After careful review and investigation of her medical history, an autopsy was not deemed necessary.”

Dr. Thomas Beaver, a forensic pathologist for The Medical University of South Carolina, said the coroner system in South Carolina is among the worst he’s seen after working as a medical examiner and forensic pathologist in California, Texas and Florida.

“I don’t know what the coroners here have as far as guidelines,” Beaver said. “Somebody needs to write them.”

Beaver authored practice guidelines for medical examiners in Daytona Beach, Fla. He eventually got those guidelines codified as administrative code in the state.

“I think that’s the kind of thing that needs to happen in South Carolina,” Beaver said. “It would help the coroners be more uniform in their practice and the way they handle cases.”

O’Neal said she thought coroners in smaller counties may do fewer autopsies because of funding constraints. But money shouldn’t impede a deeper look into a person’s death.

“If I believe that the individual is best served by having an autopsy ordered, then I’m going to order it regardless of the funding level,” O’Neal said. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Though Carr currently is buried at Bethel Baptist Church in Blythewood, an autopsy is still possible. That process would involve exhuming her body.

If investigators suspected mold, Beaver said, they might take samples of mold or other allergens in her dorm room and compare those to any mold DNA found in her lung tissue.

“Mold is like a lot of different species,” he said. “You can fingerprint the mold with DNA just like you could anything else.”

But Beaver cautioned that Carr’s asthma attacks could have been triggered in other ways.

“It could be that there’s another plant growing outside the residence hall,” Beaver said. “To be scientific about it, you have to establish that mold was in her body at some point.”

Grieving the unknown

Since Carr’s death, Canzater and her two sons have found it nearly impossible to get through a day without shedding tears.

“I fear that God could call me home for grieving this hard over my daughter,” Canzater said, referring to the constant chest pains she’s experienced since Carr’s death. “I cry every day.”

But knowing more about why she died would offer a small bit of relief.

“I don’t have peace of mind,” Canzater said. “I don’t know how she died.”

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