Vegas conventions, fake snoring, memory lapses: Georgia coroners not always a staid crowd

tom sublett

Tom Sublett, a Glynn County commissioner, was found in the water at St. Simons Island, his hands bound in front of his body, a bullet wound in the back of his head. The coroner said it was a suicide.

kevin wallace

Kevin Wallace was found dead of a gunshot wound in his Macon home. The coroner ruled his death a suicide, even though a retired homicide detective saw what may have been a second bullet wound when he examined death-scene photos.

No matter how long they’ve held office, Georgia coroners must attend three days of training each year. The classes are supposed to keep coroners up to date on death investigation techniques – and to help ameliorate the fact that most of them had few, if any, relevant credentials when they were first elected.

But dozens of coroners and deputy coroners skip the mandatory training each year, often with little or no consequence.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reviewed minutes from four years of meetings by the Georgia Coroners Training Council, the only state agency with the authority, albeit limited, to police the state’s 154 elected coroners.

The newspaper’s review took place in conjunction with a story published Sunday that reported most coroners have no expertise in criminal or forensic science, opening significant gaps in how Georgia investigates even the most suspicious deaths.

Coroners have a variety of day jobs: funeral director, plumber, dentist, teacher, boat-motor mechanic. Just one of the 154 coroners is a physician (and he’s an orthopedist, not a pathologist).

Sunday’s  story focused on the 2012 deaths of Kevin Wallace of Macon and Tom Sublett of St. Simons Island. Coroners ruled that each death was a suicide, despite factors that seemed to suggest otherwise.

The training council’s chairman, Turner County Coroner Edgar Perry, said coroners receive few resources from their counties, a neglect that extends to the statewide council.

“The coroner system in the state of Georgia works as best it can with the funds it has,” Perry said in an interview. “Overall, the death investigation system – with the exception of some rotten apples, which you have in every profession – works very well.”

Trainers change the curriculum every year. In 2014, they devoted four hours each to conducting inquests and studying new legislation; three hours each to case studies and interview techniques; two hours to child fatality review, organ donations, budget preparation and media relations; and one hour each to administration and testing.

But almost every time it meets, the training council – made up entirely of coroners – forgives absences from training.

Sometimes it grants extensions, allowing coroners and deputy coroners to spread their training over a second year. Other times, it excuses them from the training requirement altogether.

The council decertifies a few dozen coroners or deputies each year, which could result in their removal from office. In 2014, for example, it took action against 46 of the 436 coroners and deputies who were supposed to complete training but failed to do so. But each was eligible for recertification.

Extensions result from crises both personal and professional.

The council gave extra time to a Cherokee County deputy coroner because he was going through a divorce. It did the same for a Paulding County deputy whose wife lost her job so he couldn’t take time off from his job at the post office.

Bryan County Coroner Bill Cox filed a written request for an extension in 2012: “As you are aware, in running a small funeral home and being coroner, circumstances arise beyond our control. This morning, 10 minutes before I was to leave Richmond Hill to go to training class, I had a death call. I had been waiting for a month for the lady to pass.”

Also, he said, “my secretary retired two weeks ago.”

The council also has allowed some coroners to count non-traditional training toward the three-day annual requirement. In 2010 and 2013, it accepted attendance at a coroners’ convention in Las Vegas in lieu of the Georgia training. Council members wondered whether attendance was mandatory at the Las Vegas sessions – or whether attendance was taken. They may have had good reason for concern: the convention brochure was decorated with pictures of playing cards floating over text about training sessions.

The council has no jurisdiction over official misconduct by coroners. For instance, it could take no action against former Richmond County Coroner Grover Tuten, who was accused of stealing from the dead. He pleaded guilty to using one man’s ATM card 33 times to withdraw a total of $9,800. Tuten, 72, spent 26 years in the coroner’s office, first as a deputy and then, from 2004 to 2014, as the elected coroner. A federal judge recently sentenced Tuten to 36 months in prison.

Allegations of milder forms of misbehavior do come before the council, however.

In 2011, trainers wanted to ban four coroners from future sessions because they had created a disturbance during a class. One of them admitted to making fake snoring sounds during one speaker’s presentation – although he later said a medical condition caused the noise. The council issued warnings to the coroner and three of his colleagues, who apparently giggled over the ersatz snoring.

The council considered decertifying another coroner over his behavior during training classes in 2012. Trainers dismissed him one day because he showed up so late. He returned another day but failed a written test at the end of the class (correctly answering just nine of 25 questions). That day, he disrupted the class by reading cookbooks and newspapers and repeatedly photographing his peers.

He told the council he failed the test because of memory lapses caused by repeated mini-strokes. He said he didn’t remember the other behavior – “and probably will not remember some parts of this meeting.”

The council excused the coroner from the training requirement that year. Nearly four years later, he is still in office.

 

 


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