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Coroner critics: Inaction harms families

Published: Thu, April 29, 2010 @ 12:08 a.m.




Academic experts say the Mahoning County coroner’s refusal to open his morgue last weekend after Saturday’s triple-fatal car crash in Campbell was inconsistent with the goal of timely death notifications to families.

“The first rule of this is to do no further harm, and it would appear that further harm was done to these families by the delay ... by putting budget and other concerns ahead of the needs of those families,” said Mary G. Wilson, assistant professor of justice studies at Kent State University Trumbull Campus.

She was referring to the county’s elected part-time coroner, Dr. David M. Kennedy, who said he didn’t consider it necessary to open his office on the weekend to allow police to confirm the identities of the victims. Kennedy said he believed police already had the identification information they needed on the three deceased.

“He didn’t follow his responsibility. He should have opened it up,” during the weekend, Catherine L. Kieley, coordinator of public safety training and the police academy at KSUTC, said of police access to the morgue.

Families need timely notification to begin their grieving and mourning process, Wilson said.

“It has to be family-centered, especially when you’re talking about death notification. You have to put them at the forefront,” she added.

Dead at the accident scene were the car’s occupants, Elijah B. Paige, 20, the driver, and Poetry H. Dotson, 21, both of Campbell, and Ian A. Stores, 17, of Boardman. The sole surviving occupant was Malquan Patton, 17, of Campbell, who was taken to St. Elizabeth Health Center in critical condition.

When the car crashed at 5:03 a.m. Saturday into the house, police estimated it was traveling between 80 and 90 mph. Nobody in the house was injured.

“It concerns me greatly that individuals chose not to open” the morgue or go to the accident scene “when they should have been there,” Wilson said, referring to the decisions by Dr. Kennedy.

The coroner cited budget constraints in his decision to lay off one of his three investigators at the end of this month and stop sending the investigators to death scenes, effective April 19. The coroner, who spent $637,838 from the county’s general fund last year, has a budget of $600,000 this year. Dr. Kennedy earns $63,255 annually and said he devotes an average of 15 to 20 hours a week to his coroner’s job.

“I find it surprising” that Dr. Kennedy opted not to go or send anyone to the crash scene, Wilson said. “I’ve been at a number of crime scenes and accident scenes over the years, and there’s always been somebody from the medical examiner’s office,” at a death scene, she said.

“I cannot recall a time when they would not be,” at such a scene, she added.

“That office has to serve the public, and they have to have somebody available 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Kieley said. “He should have either been there himself or had somebody” else at the scene.

Dr. Kennedy said he didn’t think he’d learn much by going to the scene beyond what police had found there.

For medical and emergency response professionals, a 9-to-5 attitude toward the job is inappropriate, Wilson added.

When she was a victim advocate at the nonprofit Victim Assistance Program in Akron and made death notifications, she was on round-the-clock call and received no overtime pay, Wilson said.

Kieley said she wonders why the coroner’s investigators don’t have staggered days and hours of work.

When a reporter asked Dr. Kennedy about staggering workdays to achieve seven-day-a-week investigator coverage at a news conference, he replied: “There’s still the work to be done Monday through Friday. Unfortunately, there is more work than just one investigator can handle. I’m not sure two investigators are going to be enough to handle this workload.”

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