Academy Recommends Phasing Out Coroners

The following is the third chapter in an NPR/ProPublica/Frontline report on death investigation in the United States.

Some experts see coroners like Minyard as throwbacks to an earlier, less scientific era.

The qualifications of those who oversee death investigations vary widely from state to state—and, in some areas, from county to county. But the main divide is between medical examiner systems, run by doctors specially trained in forensic pathology, and coroner systems, run by elected or appointed officials who often do not have to be doctors.

While Minyard happens to be a physician—he worked as an obstetrician-gynecologist before becoming coroner—he isn't a forensic pathologist and never actually puts scalpel to flesh. In the end, though, it is Minyard who decides what words will be typed on the death certificate.

The 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences, a comprehensive overview of defects in the nation's death investigation system authored by more than 50 luminaries in the field, recommended phasing out coroners and replacing them with medical examiners. (For a detailed, state-by-state breakdown, see our app.)

For Fierro, the Virginia forensic pathologist, the coroner-versus-medical-examiner debate is fundamentally about competence. In her view, only trained specialists should oversee death investigations. "I'm not anti-coroner," said Fierro, one of the authors of the academy's report. "I'm pro-competency."

But another concern raised by the academy is that coroners often are closely aligned with law enforcement agencies. In 48 California counties, the local sheriff serves as coroner. In Nebraska, county prosecutors perform the coroner's duties. "Sensitive cases, such as police shootings and police encounter deaths … require an unbiased death investigation that is clearly independent of law enforcement," the NAS report stated.

Minyard's close ties to law enforcement have provoked controversy throughout his long career, and his decisions in certain cases, particularly that of Adolph Archie, illustrate just how much power a coroner can wield.

Archie died in 1990, soon after grabbing a revolver from a Superdome security guard and shooting a police officer to death.

When officers captured Archie, the chatter on the police radio turned sinister. "Somebody kill him," demanded one cop, according to a transcript of the radio traffic. "Hang the bitch by his balls," urged another.

By the time Archie reached Charity Hospital, he'd suffered a host of injuries, including broken facial bones and skull fractures, leading hospital staffers to conclude he had been kicked repeatedly, medical records show.

McGarry did the autopsy, noting many of Archie's injuries. Minyard initially told the media he was baffled and didn't know whether to rule the death a homicide. He speculated that Archie might have fallen backward and hit his head on the floor when he struggled with officers, or that officers might have struck him in self-defense.

"When a perpetrator grabs a gun, a policeman has a right to defend himself," Minyard told the local newspaper.

Media reports later revealed that one of the officers who arrested Archie was a friend of Minyard's who rented an apartment from the coroner.

A second autopsy conducted by Sperry, the Georgia doctor, uncovered additional injuries overlooked by McGarry, including more skull fractures, crushing damage to Archie's larynx and bruising of his testicle. After public protests calling for the coroner's resignation, Minyard changed his determination, calling Archie's death a homicide.

Then he shifted his stance again, deciding that Archie had died of an allergic reaction to medication he received in the hospital. To this day, Minyard insists Archie wasn't killed by a police beating. "His trauma never caused his death," said the coroner, adding that "my position was that Adolph Archie died from an allergic reaction to iodine that he was given on the X-ray table."

Prosecutors never indicted anyone in connection with Archie's death.

"I don't think there's anybody in town who doesn't believe that he was beat to death by the police," said Mary Howell, the civil rights attorney who represented Archie's children in a wrongful-death suit. The city of New Orleans paid $330,000 to settle the case. From Howell's perspective, the Archie story—and Minyard's role in it—sent an "extremely damaging message."

"That was kind of a watershed incident in this city," she said.

Minyard believes criticism of coroners is "malarkey"—in fact, he doesn't believe coroners even need a high-school diploma to do the job.

"Being a good coroner involves a lot more than finding out a cause of death," he said, adding that the key skills are the ability to speak to grieving families and to the media. "It has nothing to do with education. It has to do with you as an individual and the love that you have for your fellow man. And so that's why I say having a coroner who has no education sometimes is better than a medical examiner who has all of the education in the world."

Several of the country's most esteemed death-investigation units are overseen by coroners, including the coroner's office in Clark County, Nev., which was the model for the TV show "CSI."

P. Michael Murphy, a former police chief, is the coroner there. He thinks the national academy report took an "off with their head" approach to his profession, even though coroners generally do "a really good job with what they have."

Murphy also made it clear that coroner systems come in many different forms, including those that insulate coroners from political pressure and the influence of law enforcement. In Clark County, for example, the coroner is appointed by the seven-member county commission, a process that mirrors the way many counties select their chief medical examiners.

From The Beginning

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In his view, laypeople are entirely capable of running a medical operation, noting that many hospitals are helmed by chief administrators who are more knowledgeable about finance than anatomy. "That model works well in hospitals all over the United States," he said.

Continue reading this NPR News investigation in partnership with ProPublica and PBS Frontline:

Chapter 4: A State Office Struggles With Mismanagement

Chapter 5: Shortage of Death Detectives To Perform Autopsies

Chapter 6: Oklahoma's Lack of Resources Means Few Autopsies

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