MAHONING COUNTY Deputy coroner post still vacant
County officials are looking again at creating a regional forensics center.
By BOB JACKSON
VINDICATOR COURTHOUSE REPORTER
YOUNGSTOWN -- People aren't exactly dying to become Mahoning County's next deputy coroner and forensic pathologist.
"No one has applied," said Coroner David Kennedy. The position has been advertised for about a month.
Dr. Jesse C. Giles, who held the dual positions for nearly seven years, resigned to take a job in Florida. As a forensic pathologist, Giles performed nearly all the county's autopsies.
With no replacement in sight, Dr. Kennedy has started sending bodies to a forensics center in Cleveland for autopsies. But at a cost of $1,040 apiece, it's not an option he wants to stick with in the long run, since the county generally does about 150 autopsies a year.
Bodies are sent to Cleveland because that's the nearest forensics center, Kennedy said. Doctors at local hospitals can do autopsies but shy away from them.
"They don't like do to them because they don't like to testify in court," Kennedy said. "The autopsies don't bother them. It's that court stuff that comes down the road."
Dr. Giles was frequently a witness in murder trials because of his expertise. He was swamped with requests from the prosecutor's office to testify on videotape about pending cases before he left office.
Kennedy said courtroom testimony is among the services offered by the Cleveland facility. It's included in the autopsy fee.
Kennedy would like to hire another forensic pathologist but only if one can be found who's willing to work for about the same money Giles was paid -- $110,000 a year. He was the highest-paid county employee.
Kennedy said he's confident someone will take the job, though it probably won't be someone with Giles' experience and expertise. He'll continue searching through professional organizations and hopes to have someone on board by late summer.
It could be a long, slow search, said Lee Parrott, Hamilton County coroner, who is president of the Ohio State Coroners Association. He said there is a shortage of forensic pathologists nationwide.
"And the ones who are out there generally tend to cluster in the larger cities" because the pay is higher, he said. That puts smaller cities and communities at a disadvantage when they try to fill these positions.
The problem has caused Kennedy and county commissioners to once again consider creating a regional forensics center here.
The idea was first proposed in 1996 but faded because of a lack of interest and money. Kennedy said it will take both of those things to get the idea off the ground this time as well.
"I think everyone was behind it in theory, but when it came time to shelling out money for it, no one could afford it," Kennedy said.
He said it would take about $1.5 million to $2 million to buy a building and the necessary equipment to set up a forensics laboratory. That doesn't include the cost of staffing.
Kennedy said there are some state grants available for creating such a facility, though he's not sure that would be enough for Mahoning County to operate on its own.
"If we have commitments from surrounding counties, I think it's a good idea," Kennedy said. "If we have to go it alone, we can't afford it."
When area law enforcement agencies were polled by the county in 1996, they overwhelmingly supported the idea of a local crime lab, where forensics testing could be done in their back yard rather than in far-away cities.
Prosecutor Paul Gains said it's still a good idea.
"Any time you can do something locally, it's an advantage because it cuts down on trial delays," Gains said.
Giles, whose last day here was Friday, also said a forensics center would be a smart move because it would further modernize the coroner's operation and enable local workers to perform tasks, like X-rays and toxicology testing, that are currently contracted out.
County Administrator Gary Kubic said commissioners will appoint a task force whose job will be to create a framework for establishment of a forensics center.
That panel will then take its recommendations to Kennedy and the commissioners, who will decide whether it's feasible to approach neighboring Columbiana and Trumbull counties about creating a regional lab.
If a crime lab is established, it could become a teaching center for students at the Northeastern Ohio Universities College of Medicine in Rootstown.
"There are all sorts of partnerships we could explore with a facility like that," he said.