Thursday, September 21, 2006

More Coroner Fun


Looks like the Marion County Coroner might need to start looking for a new gig.

The Indy Star reports:

A legislative committee has approved a proposal that would mandate more training for coroners and set standards to avoid errors like the one that switched the identities of two college students -- one dead and one alive.

The proposal would require that coroners identify the dead by one of four methods: fingerprints, DNA, dental records or visual identification by a family member.

The possible changes in state law were motivated in part by a Grant County coroner's error that switched the identities of two Taylor University students -- one dead and one alive.

In the April 26 fatal crash in Grant County that killed five people, one of the deceased victims, Laura VanRyn, 22, was mistakenly identified as 18-year-old Whitney Cerak.

VanRyn's parents kept vigil at Cerak's beside in the hospital for five weeks, only realizing that she was not their daughter when Cerak began to emerge from her coma.

Indiana's 92 county coroners are elected, and only half are certified as legal death investigators by the state. Unlike their deputy coroners, who must be certified and undergo continuing education, elected coroners are not required to be certified.

At Wednesday's hearing at the Statehouse, the Interim Study Committee on Criminal Justice Matters unanimously approved the proposed bill, which Sen. Patricia Miller, R-Indianapolis, will introduce during the 2007 legislative session.

She and others on the committee said the bill is "a work in progress" and likely will change during the process.

The proposal would require elected coroners and deputy coroners to pass a 40-hour training course within six months of taking office or being hired, and then complete another eight hours of training each year.

Training would be developed by a pathologist and taught by the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy. If a coroner or deputy coroner didn't complete the training, the proposal states that the county government could withhold their salary until they do.

Dick Alfeld, Allen County's chief deputy coroner and a board member for the Indiana State Coroners Association, said that while the identification rules leave little leeway for coroners the association accepts the proposed change.

He said he does not think it is legal to withhold the coroner's pay because the position is a constitutionally elected office, but he said the association will not oppose the modification.
However, Alfred said the association is fighting the proposed bill's provision to move the training from the Coroners Training Board -- which receives money from death certificate fees -- to the Indiana Law Enforcement Academy.

"As the coroners association we are interested in improving the system," Alfeld said. "But why are we reinventing the wheel? We have a training board that already does this. The problems arise from people who haven't taken the training, not those who have."

The only requirement for the elected office under the constitution is that a coroner be at least 18 and a resident for one year in the county in which the candidate is seeking the job.

A member of the Legislative Services Agency told the committee in August that under a long-standing court ruling interpreting the constitution, new qualifications to be elected coroner could not be added without changing the document.

Changing it requires an amendment passing two consecutively elected Legislatures and approval in a statewide vote, a process that can take up to four years.

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