Cape Girardeau County commissioners approved issuing a request for proposals for a medical examiner after a public hearing on the issue was held on Oct. 30. Presiding Commissioner Clint Tracy said the RFP will allow the county to see what a medical examiner would cost and what services would be provided.
“The commission desires to actually find out what kind of cost and what kind of a plan we would be looking at in order to make an informed decision,” Tracy said, adding that the RFP process will allow the commissioners to be better equipped to make a decision about moving to a medical examiner position in the county.
Cape Girardeau County currently has a coroner position, despite the majority of first-class counties in the state having a medical examiner. When Cape Girardeau County became a first-class county in 1997, the county successfully lobbied for a change in legislation that would allow them to keep an elected coroner position.
Tracy said the county’s concern about switching to a medical examiner position in 1997 was mostly due to the increased expense, but that a lot has changed in the county over the past 26 years.
“Cape Girardeau County has grown,” Tracy said. “We’ve got over 80,000 people in the county now, and we feel that there could be some benefits from professionalizing the office.”
Whereas medical examiners are required to be physicians by state statute, coroners only have age and residency requirements. Medical examiners would be appointed by the county commission instead of being elected.
During the public hearing, several residents spoke in defense of current Coroner Wavis Jordan, saying they had found him to be a reliable person over the many years they have known him and didn’t think he had been treated fairly by recent investigative reporting by KFVS. They also brought up that the county might not benefit enough from the medical examiner position to justify the additional costs.
Jim Roche, who said he wasn’t necessarily opposed to a medical examiner position, said he felt the reporting from KFVS felt like a “personal vendetta” against Jordan.
Tracy said that these discussions relating to changing to a medical examiner predated the recent KFVS stories. Prosecuting Attorney Mark Welker, First Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Angel Woodruff and Cape Girardeau/Bollinger County Major Case Squad Commander Don Perry asked the commission to look into adding a medical examiner position in February.
“Several of you brought up some current news events and that’s really separate from what we’re talking about today,” Tracy said. “Over time, the medical examiner question has been talked about at the county level by county officials as long as I’ve been here, which is several years.”
Perry spoke again at the public hearing, stating that a medical professional would help local law enforcement guide investigations after deaths. He added that they often look for new evidence after an autopsy is done in Farmington, which could be done right away if a medical examiner was at the scene.
“I’ve been in this profession for over 30 years, and I don’t have all the answers,” Perry said. “We have to rely on these medical professionals to give us that information. It would be very nice for this county to have its own.”
Perry said a medical examiner would be more knowledgeable about whether or not an autopsy or toxicology report is necessary and could provide families a greater explanation on why those decisions were made.
Cape Girardeau Police Chief Wes Blair added that he had formally worked with a medical examiner when he was an investigator in the Dallas, Texas area. He said in addition to increased evidence gathering with the help of a medical examiner, the prosecution of murder cases is easier with a medical examiner’s testimony.
“If we’re preparing to go to prosecution on a homicide or something like that, just having a medical expertise shores up our reports,” Blair said. “It benefits us as we try to bring justice to the families that are homicide victims.”
Others spoke to the commission about issues they had with the current coroner’s office, citing the need for a medical professional in the role. Many had experienced the death of a loved one and wished those deaths were handled better.
Jenny Blankenship spoke about issues she had with the coroner’s office surrounding the death of her nephew. She said their issue was not just with Jordan, but the whole office, adding that many balls were dropped in her case that could have been avoided if someone more experienced was involved.
“We will never get closure on my nephew because a lot of things didn’t happen that should have happened,” Blankenship said. “We will never have a funeral and we’ll never be able to do anything as far as spreading his ashes.”
Sherri Stairs, who is a registered respiratory therapist, spoke about how the coroner’s office handled her husband’s death two years ago. Stairs said she asked for an autopsy to be done and Jordan told her they would do a toxicology report. She said that the coroner later decided not to do a toxicology report for her husband.
“We need someone with medical experience who knows when we need something or not,” Stairs said. “We didn’t get that, and I hope no other families have to go through what I have to live with for the rest of my life.”
Daniel Rose stated that Jordan was polite and showed empathy after the death of Rose’ daughter, but Jordan was not the right person for the role. “There are costs involved that people have experienced because of how things were handled with their deceased loved one,” Rose said. You can’t put a figure on that. Those are things that don’t go away.”
Don Howard spoke about his experience with the coroner’s office in 2018 before Jordan was coroner. He criticized the deputy coroner who visited after Howard’s father died. Howard said his father was found with a handprint on his face, police were called due to possible foul play but an autopsy was not done.
“You have inexperienced people in a really, really important position,” Howard said. “We’ll never have closure over dad, and I wish I knew what happened. … It was wrong what happened to dad and it shouldn’t happen to anybody else, so I’m all for a medical examiner.”
Howard added that the deputy coroner at the time could not get his father’s name right, and he later had issues with Jordan when he tried to find answers years after his father’s death.
Debbie Clifton, wife of former coroner John Clifton, said she didn’t believe that the county could afford a medical examiner, but that the county does need a more qualified coroner.
“John took 16 years to build a decent coroner’s office in this county, and it has been totally destroyed by this administration,” Clifton said. “So I think the problem is that, you need someone competent and there needs to be some parameters set.”
Gerald Swan, who worked in the coroner’s office when the decision was made to continue with the coroner position in 1997, said he understood the decision at the time but that the county needs to transition to a medical examiner. “With how crime and everything has changed as far as forensics, I do believe it is time for a medical examiner,” Swan said.
If the county commissioners decide to accept a proposal for a medical examiner, the transition away from the coroner position would be made at the end of Jordan’s term on Jan. 1, 2025.