County Attorneys Trained as Death Investigators

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May 31, 2011 - 7:00pm

As the prosecutor in Keith County, Nebraska, Deb Gilg learned one essential tip when arriving at the scene of an especially ugly death. Put a dab of Vicks VapoRub under each nostril. It kept the often nasty smell at bay.

Often Nebraska's County Attorneys are surprised by what they encounter when taking on responsibilities for the second job that is required by law when they take office. Nebraska is the only state in the country that requires its county attorney be its chief death investigator. The official title is coroner. By law the coroner has the final word on whether you're dead and how you died.

Deb Gilg has since moved up to become Nebraska's U.S. Attorney and her office helped coordinate a specialized training program for county attorneys in May of 2011.

One of the country's leading certified death investigator's become Mary Fran Ernst, from St. Louis University, finds it remarkable that Nebraska maintains its unique system. "I certainly would never run for county attorney in Nebraska," Ernst told NET News, "because this is such a hard job and you need specialized knowledge, skill and experience." For one hundred years, by Nebraska state law, county attorneys have also held the post of coroner. Up until 2009, there has been no requirement for specialized training. Only recently have there been organized efforts within the state to provide it.


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The PBS series FRONTLINE devoted an episode to the national issues of inconsistent standards for death investigations

That is what brought Mary Fran Ernst and her PowerPoint presentation (featuring some "very graphic stuff," in her words) to a hotel conference room in Kearney in May. The occasion was a training session put on by the U.S. Attorney of Nebraska and the Nebraska Association of County Attorneys. Standing before over 200 county attorneys, police, and a variety of other people who might contribute to a death investigation she provided pointers on how to think about the dozens of ways a human life can end.

As the red dot from a laser pointer floated across a slide of a crushed skull, Ernst casually talked about how "things falling on top of them, blunt force trauma" will "change the body's appearance." For the county attorneys in the room, this was not covered in law school.

The job of the coroner does not just cover crime scene investigations since a crime scene may not have a death involved. Conversely, every death may not be a crime. Initially the body is not the responsibility of the police only the county coroner. The coroner can get help from the police and maybe a pathologist doing an autopsy, but Ernst a certified medical examiner says clear understandings about whose turf is whose becomes essential.

There needs to be a very good conversation about why there needs to be somebody else besides law enforcement investigating this death. And then you know the ground rules and everyone does their job to the best of their ability and hopefully you come up with the right determination of cause and manner of death.

But Nebraska's part time coroners/full time county attorneys are trained in law school not in medical school. It's why the new requirements for training are designed to prepare them both for the death scene and the court room where they might be called as a witness to justify their ruling on cause and manner of death. And there are some common mistakes Mary Fran Ernst has seen time and again. A coroner might deal with a school bus accident or a drug overdose or a stabbing or a case of negligence at a nursing home. That last example is one of the trickiest, according to Ernst. "What many people don't realize is that the easiest people to murder are those who are expected to die. So if it's an older person who has medical problems, many people would say oh it's natural causes' and not even further investigate."

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Mary Fran Ernst of St. Louis University instructs Nebraska's County Attorneys on proper procedures to investigate deaths in their jurisdiction.

If the coroner rules there is reason for the death to be suspicious then police take on responsibility not only for the scene but the victim as well. But in Nebraska that can put the combination prosecutor/coroner in a very unique situation, according to Ernst and it's "one that could be very troublesome."

That duel role can mean a county attorney is in a position of determining a cause of death when it involves the local sheriff's deputy or town cop. In her example, a community could "have the police office is accused of striking an individual who then dies, does the family wonders if the prosecutor or the county attorney is going to be very straight forward and honest or are they going to lean to protect the police officer who they work with all the time." There are some protections in place. County attorneys often get help from the Nebraska State Patrol. Sometimes a special prosecutor is brought in to give an investigation an independent eye.

The idea of separating the role of county attorney and corner has been floated a number of times. The cost and the politics of law enforcement make it unlikely that Nebraska will get the sort of independent, regionalized and better staffed death investigations that Ernst and others have called for.

Meanwhile, the type of specialized training set up for the County Attorneys is making some feel better about how they conduct themselves when faced with a death in need of closer scrutiny.



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