The politics of death

Arkansas requires more training for drivers, cosmetologists and mold investigators than it does for coroners. In fact, the state requires nothing—no training, no testing, not even a background check—for county officials who investigate deaths.

I raise this topic now because, presumably, according to Circuit Judge David Laser’s order, certain evidence from the case of the West Memphis Three is now being tested. Court filings in the next few weeks are likely to focus attention on the work of the crime scene investigators and the state crime lab.

This lull, as we await results from the laboratory analyses now underway, is a good time to revisit the earliest moments at the drainage ditch where the bodies of Christopher Byers, Michael Moore and Stevie Branch were found. This is what records tell us about the coroner who pronounced them dead.

[private]Crittenden County’s coroner, Kent Hale, was called to the scene at 3:20 p.m. on May 6, 1993, an hour and 50 minutes after the boys’ bodies were discovered. Hale, who worked for Roller-Citizens Funeral Home in West Memphis in addition to his job as county coroner, was accompanied to the scene by another of the funeral home’s employees.  

Hale noted in his report that when he arrived, he found all three bodies out of the water and lying on the bank covered in black plastic. The air temperature was approaching the high eighties. Fly larvae were starting to appear in the victims’ eyes and nostrils.

Hale pronounced the boys dead at 3:58 p.m., by which time the bodies had been lying in the open for more than two and a half hours. In his brief report, part of which was on a form, Hale noted the position of the bodies as he found them, the temperature of the water in which they’d been found, and that they were tied hands-to-ankles “by shoelaces.”

Hale also noted what appeared to be injuries to the boys, including bruising, cuts, abrasions, a “stab wound” to the head of Christopher, and signs that the boys ‘may have been sexually assaulted.” He wrote that the bodies were sent to the office of the Arkansas Medical Examiner in Little Rock. (Hale’s report.)

Hale left many parts of the form blank, including one for “Causes of Death.” He would leave that determination to the state crime lab, which is permissible under Arkansas’s dual coroner/medical-examiner system. The criminal investigation was already in the hands of the West Memphis Police Department.

The role of coroner originated in England before the signing of the Magna Carta. The word itself comes from “crown,” as the coroner was supposed to represent the interests of the king at a subject’s death. Today, expectations of coroners vary greatly.

In England, coroners must be either a physician or a lawyer with at least five years of practice. They are expected to investigate any deaths that are unnatural, violent, sudden with unknown cause, or that occur in police or prison custody.

In the U.S., coroners may be either elected or appointed, or the coroner’s job may be part of another job, such as that of prosecuting attorney. In some states, the titles of coroner and medical examiner are used interchangeably.

Requirements for both positions are established locally. A coroner’s duties, however, always include determining the cause, time, and manner of death.

The Arkansas County Coroner’s Procedures Manual states that, “The county coroner is charged with the responsibility of determining the cause of death for those deaths properly the responsibility of the coroner.” It adds, however, that if the medical examiner accepts the case, the coroner is relieved of that responsibility.

Friction can develop between police working a crime scene and a coroner, who is required to conduct “a good, thorough investigation” and file a report on the death within five days. As a result, Arkansas officials have interpreted the state’s law as providing that “law enforcement officials must give the county coroner access to all scenes of deaths…” because “… the coroner must satisfy himself as to whether the death was the result of a crime.”

That is a heavy responsibility. As noted in the “Coroner’s Creed,” published on the website of the Arkansas Coroner’s Association, “Death is the most important legal event for all human beings. … Both the deceased and the survivors may be greatly affected legally by how death occurred, what actually happened, why it occurred, and precisely when it occurred. … Only when these questions have been answered correctly can all the proper legal issues arising at death be effectively handled for the proper administration of justice.”

Consider: If a corner concludes, correctly or not, that someone slipped and fell, the death may never be investigated as a crime. If the coroner concludes that a death was an accident, insurance may be collected, even if the death was actually a suicide. A coroner has the power to determine whether a baby’s death in the crib was a tragic accident or a criminal act.

Yet, in Arkansas, the requirements for someone to hold the job of coroner are less than minimal. According to the Coroner’s Procedures Manual, “The coroner is elected for a two-year term of office with the requirements that he/she be a qualified elector and resident of the county.” That’s it. To be a county coroner in Arkansas, all a person must do is register to vote and win election.

By contrast, to drive a car in Arkansas, a person must pass a vision, written and driving test. Auctioneers must sit for a written exam and conduct a mock auction for an oral exam. To be licensed as a cosmetologist, a person must have completed the 10th grade and successfully completed a 1,500-hour course of instruction at an approved school of cosmetology.

Massage therapists must pass a background check by the state police and the FBI, in addition to completing 500 hours of massage therapy classes with test grades of at least 75 percent. And to be licensed as a mold inspector, a person will have to be certified as an industrial hygienist by the American Board of Industrial Hygiene; as a microbial consultant or indoor environmental consultant by the American Indoor Air Quality Council; or have successfully completed at least 20 hours of college-level microbiology.

It could be argued that, after existing for a thousand years, the coroner’s job has become obsolete. But in the poor state of Arkansas, at least, where a government job is a job, and an elected post is a job with status, discussion of eliminating coroners is a non-starter.

The alternative is to improve requirements for the job, in hope of improving its standards. A state representative attempted that in the legislative session this spring. His bill, titled “An Act to Modernize the Office of Coroner,” did not pass.[private]

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