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Prosecuting attorney asks county commissioners for medical examiner

Photo by Jay Forness

Prosecuting Attorney Mark Welker, along with other prosecuting and law enforcement representatives, asked the Cape Girardeau County Commissioners to consider adding a medical examiner and replacing the currently elected coroner position in the county.

Welker, First Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Angel Woodruff and Cape Girardeau/Bollinger County Major Case Squad Commander Don Perry all spoke on the issue during the county commission’s regular meeting on Feb. 16.

All three said the addition of a medical examiner would better help the county investigate and prosecute violent crimes in the county.

“The only qualifications for a coroner is they be of a certain age, meet residency requirements and they must win a vote,” Woodruff said. “For something as specialized as what we deal with in prosecution with homicides, the preference would be somebody who is highly trained, such as a forensic pathologist who is a physician, to serve in the position of a medical examiner.”

Medical examiners must be medical physicians by state statute and are appointed by the county commission instead of being elected. Wavis Jordan was elected as Cape Girardeau County coroner in November 2020 for a four-year term ending in 2024.

“We are one of five first-class counties in the state that do not have a medical examiner,” Woodruff said. Missouri has 13 first-class counties — and five charter counties — that have medical examiners or share medical examiner services with other counties.

Cape Girardeau County became a first-class county in 1997. By statue, the county was originally required to switch from a coroner position to a medical examiner, but the county successfully lobbied the state legislature to give the county the choice of staying with a coroner.

“We took action to specifically exclude ourselves 25 years ago when we became a first-class county, so it’s an interesting discussion,” Presiding Commissioner Clint Tracy said.

According to The Cash-Book Journal reporting in 1997, the commission decided against a medical examiner at the time due to the higher costs related to hiring a medical examiner. All three current commissioners said they have similar concerns today, but were open to exploring the option of a medical examiner.

Woodruff said the county would be able to contract medical examiner services with surrounding counties to cover some of the costs related to the change. “I think that it would be an upfront expense, but a long-term benefit,” she said.

One of the benefits of having a medical examiner, according to Woodruff, is that the medical examiner would come to the scene of violent crimes including homicides and help law enforcement collect all necessary evidence.

“They don’t just collect the body,” Woodruff said. “They would also do the autopsy and would know the context of what happened to this victim. Whenever we have a coroner who reports, they collect the body, they take the body to our contracted forensic pathologist, and that pathologist does not know anything about the scene. It just adds a level of knowledge that fits together with their expertise.”

Perry, who also serves asthe officer in charge of the investigations unit at the Cape Girardeau Police Department, agreed with Woodruff that having a medical examiner on the scene be helpful, as it would help guide investigations from the very start.

“It would give us a great level of expertise right off the bat,” Perry said. “In many of the cases that we do, we will hold a crime scene waiting on the autopsy just to make sure there’s no other evidence around the body that can’t be seen with the naked eye and we might need to look into.”

The county primarily has forensic pathologist Dr. Russell Deidiker in Farmington perform autopsies. Woodruff said Dr. Deidiker has been great to work with, but there have been many instances where as a witness, a forensic pathologist has not been able to know exactly what happened because they didn’t see the scene of the crime.

Woodruff said the prosecuting attorney’s office isn’t able to give a pathologist additional information about the scene because it would be considered tampering with a witness.

“This recommendation is not at all a knock against [Dr. Deidiker] or his qualifications,” Woodruff said. “His qualifications would be that of a medical examiner — it’s just a matter of having our own in-house that we could easily contact and also can go to the scene.”

Woodruff said the county has sent evidence to the nearest medical examiner in St. Louis in very specific instances, such as needing bones analyzed for DNA, but that was rare for the county due to the availability of the medical examiner office in St. Louis.

When asked by the commission if a coroner has been used as a witness in murder cases, Woodruff said she had never called a coroner to be a witness due to their lack of medical credentials.

Perry said a medical examiner would also help local law enforcement agencies determine if an autopsy is needed in the event of an unattended death. “He could give a decision that I think most people could live with,” he said. “I’m erring on the side of caution, while he would be erring on the side of expertise.”

Perry said there are many times he gets calls in the event of unattended deaths or suicides where families want more information to back up judgments by law enforcement.

“I spend a lot of time on the phone with all of our unintended deaths and things of that nature,” Perry said. “We can send them to the coroner, but he has no great expertise in law enforcement or in medical to support any of that type of information.”

The commissioners said they would consider the change, but they would need to do further research to see what the salary requirements would be for a medical examiner, as well as facility costs for the office and ancillary costs such as insurance.

“This county is growing and this part of the state is growing,” Associate Commissioner Paul Koeper said. “A medical examiner would be very valuable to all law enforcement, but we have to start looking at the cost.”

“I think there would definitely be a benefit,” Tracy said. “I think anytime you get more granularity and provide better service – that is something we ought to consider.”

In other action:

• The commission reappointed Jane Wernsman as the county’s health officer. Wernsman serves as the director of the Cape Girardeau County Public Health Center

Wernsman spoke to the board about changes taking place at the health center, including the center’s current community health assessment, which includes data on various health indicators such as leading cause of death in the county.

The center is currently collecting survey results from community members regarding health needs in Cape Girardeau County. The survey is available through the health center’s website and Facebook page.

The public health center has recently added a community health worker to its staff assisting clients who need help with referrals or accessing additional services. The center has also started offering PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) to help prevent HIV infections.

• The commission approved an amended Cape Girardeau County Jail food service contract with Trinity Services Group, which increased the jail’s food contract by $117,000 for the year.

Sheriff Ruth Ann Dick-erson said the increase was due to increased food and labor costs. “They are having trouble hiring people so they had to go back and rescope their wages, but the biggest issue is food,” she said. “The food prices, as we all know, has gine up a lot and a lot of the food vendors that they have been using in the past are going out of business, so they are having to find different supply chains.”

Dickerson said the sheriff’s office has contacted other agencies and food service providers to see if there were any alternatives for the jail, but these issues are industry-wide.

“We are comfortable with the information [Trinity] has provided us,” she said. “We went back and forth with them quite a bit negotiating, so we would like to go ahead and lock this in while we can.”

• Koeper said TreanorHL Architects, the architect partner with Penzel Construction Company on the jail addition, is working on plans for the renovation of the 1908 historic Cape Girardeau County Courthouse in Jackson.

“We are scheduled to have a meeting with the officeholders and TreanorHL the second week of March,” Koeper said, adding that the meeting would be to work on the design and layout for the renovation.

The renovation were not part of Penzel Construction and TreanorHL’s $45.5 million base bid for the jail addition project, but was included as a potential addition to the contract. The county has not yet added the historic courthouse renovation to the design-build project’s scope.

• The commission approved a grant application covering the costs of a new digital microfilm reader for the Cape Girardeau County Archive Center.

If granted, the Local Records Preservation Grant from the Missouri Secretary of State would cover the entire cost of the microfilm reader, estimated to be around $7,561. The grant does not require any matching funds from the county.

Jay Forness covers education, county government and community events for The Cash-Book Journal. He graduated from Southeast Missouri State University with a degree in multimedia journalism and has lived in Jackson for the past five years. He can be reached at cbjedit@socket.net.

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