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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Tracy Warner - Writing in the Shallow End

I had started to write a post this morning that it wouldn't be long before some Indiana editorial writer would use the tragic occurence regarding Taylor University to write an editorial calling attention to Indiana's elected coroner system.

It is an easy target for an editorial writer. Dust off a few shibboleths; don't do much historical research, and away one can go in high dudgeon and righteous indignation.

I saved my intial post as a draft because I am trying to wean myself away from blogging this week while Nathan Gotsch has taken over the duties at Fort Wayne Observed. I should have gone ahead and posted it because it didn't take Tracy Warner of the Journal-Gazette very long to fulfill my prophecy.

Mr. Warner is at his most self-righteous in calling for a medical examiner system in Indiana.

First off, the story about the Grant County Coroner mistake is about the identification duty of the coroner's office. WTHR-TV of Indianapolis had a very good story about the duties of the Indiana's coroner system this morning in an interview with Dr. John McGoff, the former coroner of Marion County.

As Dr. McGoff explained, the three main functions of the coroner are 1). identification; 2.) determining the cause of death: and, 3). determining the manner of death. This is also covered at the Indiana State Coroners Training Board site.

The first function is not necessarily a medical function. There are good, standard procedures taught by the Training Board. A coroner may require a call on medical expertise in carrying out that task but he or she may also call on other identification professionals in carrying out that duty.

The second and third functions of determining the cause and manner of death is a legal determination informed by proper medical and scientific expertise. Even a coroner who is a medical doctor is not going to be performing autopsies unless that coroner is also a forensic pathologist. Of all the medical doctors serving as coroners in Indiana only one is also a forensic pathologist. That is not unusual, however; trained and experienced forensic pathologists are few and far between. There are only 20 in the whole state.

Dr. Jon Brandenberger is a great coroner for Allen County. In interest of full disclosure I should point out that I serve with Dr. Brandenberger as an officer of a foundation and that I am part of the steering committee of Drive Alive, the program intiated by Dr. Brandenberger to prevent teen driving deaths.

That being said, most of the deaths referred to the coroner's office in Allen County are routinely handled by Coroner office personnel such as Richard Alfeld and Patt Kite who have many years of police investigative experience. And Dr. Brandenberger does not perform autopsies.

Mr. Warner writes that Grant County Coroner Mowery was a career politician - having served as Mayor, Grant County Sheriff and Marion Police Chief. Contrary to Mr. Warner's assertions, serving as Sheriff and as a Police Chief would be seen as a pretty good qualifications.

Mr. Warner goes on in his blog post to say that Indiana ought to have a medical examiner system. Well, Mr. Warner, Indiana already has provisions for a Medical Examiner system in the Indiana Code.

How do I know? Because I drafted the legislation, introduced as a bill in the Indiana House of Representatives and got it passed in 1981. I did so in conjunction with Dr. John Pless, the longtime forensic pathologist at I.U. Medical Center and with the support of then Allen County Coroner Bud Ahlbrand, M.D. and a large number of rural county coroners. That legislation led to a very robust debate which resulted in today's Indiana Coroner's Training Board and the current situation where all coroner's autopsies in Indiana ARE conducted by forensic pathologists.

The original Medical Examiner legislation (which is still in the Code) created five medical examiner districts in Indiana. Why five? Because that was the total number of forensic pathologists in the state at the time. The numbers of forensic pathologists has not particularly exploded in Indiana since then.

The Medical Examiner legislation was designed to be an "overlay" system that wouldn't supplant county coroners but would provide the availability of additional expertise

Unfortunately, it was never fully implemented due to local wrangling in Marion County over the construction of a county-owned autopsy site, among other issues. However, the purpose has been achieved along with provisions that no one can serve as a deputy coroner without passing the rigorous training program of the State Coroner's Training Board. The training is not charged back to the counties; the Training Board takes on that expense.

The elected coroner is a state constitutional office. (Indiana Constitution Article 6, Section 2). It can not be easily changed. Many witht experience in the area of law enforcement would agree it should stay that way. Just a few weeks ago, I participated in a discussion where a deputy prosecutor was adamantly defending the idea of an elected coroner with another local elected official who had no law enforcement experience.

Mr. Warner is guilty of other sins in his post including a lack of knowledge about the history of ambulance service and a gratuitous slur of funeral directors.

The times they keep a-changing but Mr. Warner seems all too often to write as if he has failed to keep pace with change in the last 25 years.

Tracy, open a book or make a telephone call. We'll all be the better for it.

MORE: Andrew Kaduk at Just 4 the Record writes in a post that the Journal-Gazette's reporting seems "mean-spirited" in its coverage of Grant County Coroner Mowery.

Wow, that was quite a rant. It reminds me of when I read something stupid (Like this fungus Mark wants us to introduce into Columbia)that Mark Souder is doing and I have to vent.

Well Done Mitch.

Mike Sylvester
I may not be reading all of this forth and back very closely, but everyone seems to be overlooking the fact that in Indiana (last I knew) the coroner is the only person who can arrest the sherrif, which is also an elected position.

Having the coroner be elected as well as the sherriff actually acts as a safeguard against corruption. Otherwise the Appointers (whoever they would be) could use their well-placed man to overturn a sherriff election they didn't like.
That's an excellent point, Katherine.

It was not being overlooked by Indiana Parley.

It was something I was holding onto in the event of a response. But I am glad you raised it now.
It does not surprise me one bit that Tracy Warner wrote what he did. He has a habit of writing what he wants without regard for the truth. In fact if he does interview a source, there is no guarantee that he will report the information presented accurately.

A real journalist would research the issue using more than one source. He would report it without putting his own emotional bias. The question is, is Tracy Warner an honest journalist?

The short answer is "no."

The long answer is "hell no, he's just a pundit."
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