City of residence: Warner Robins
Occupation: Coroner, Houston County
QUESTION: What is a coroner?
ANSWER: Coroners go back to England in the 1200s when their main job was to keep an eye on the sheriff. Sheriffs were the second most powerful people under the king and responsible for collecting taxes. Kings created the coroner to watch over tax collections and keep track of who did and didnt die each year and had to pay.
QUESTION: So what does a modern-day coroner do?
ANSWER: We dont watch over the sheriff anymore. Our modern role is to investigate deaths. The coroner investigates all deaths of persons not under a physicians care.
QUESTION: How does that work?
ANSWER: If a death occurs, it will be a homicide, suicide, accident or natural. Ill get a call and go to the scene and investigate. We start all investigations like theyre homicides, so we dont mess up what might be a crime scene.
QUESTION: What if a person is under a doctors care?
ANSWER: Im not generally called if theyre in a hospital, under direct physicians care or in hospice. I am if the person was at the hospital less than 24 hours or admitted with trauma.
If the deaths at home or elsewhere, I begin an investigation. I talk to family, look at medications and things like that. Medications have doctors name on them or the family may provide a name. Ill call and ask about them. If they confirm illness and will sign the death certificate, that basically ends my investigation.
QUESTION: How many cases are like that, under a doctors care?
ANSWER: About 50 percent.
QUESTION: What happens in other situations?
ANSWER: I investigate homicides, suicides, accidents and natural deaths in question. I work alongside law enforcement and ultimately handle the death certificate.
QUESTION: Is a coroner the same as a medical examiner?
ANSWER: No. The coroner is elected and the medical examiner is a medical doctor appointed by the coroner. Houston Countys medical examiner is Dr. James Q. Whitaker.
QUESTION: Can you clarify the roles?
ANSWER: The coroner investigates, gathers information along with law enforcement. We pass information to the medical examiner who does an autopsy and any medical testing needed. The ME gives the actual cause and manner of death. Im at every autopsy and law enforcement is there if it involves them. The district attorney is there, too, if its a prosecutable offense.
QUESTION: Is there good cooperation?
ANSWER: Oh yeah, very good. I talk to other coroners and hear horror stories, but were very, very fortunate to have the quality law enforcement throughout Houston County.
QUESTION: How many deaths do you deal with a year?
ANSWER: In 2011, I was notified of 265 deaths. Of those, 144 were cases we worked and did a complete investigation on and 121 were released to physicians. Already in 2012, weve worked 44 cases and released 51 to physicians. If the trend continues, that will mean about 380 deaths this year versus the 265 last year.
QUESTION: What else is involved in a coroners work?
ANSWER: One thing that causes a lot of grief to families is waiting for toxicology, alcohol and other test results. We send everything to the GBI lab in Macon, but it covers 27 counties and can take two or three months for results. I get calls from families justifiably wanting results, but until we hear back from the lab our hands are tied. It can hold up official word on cause of death.
QUESTION: How long have you been coroner?
ANSWER: I ran for coroner in 1981, was elected, and have been re-elected ever since. Its going on 32 years. I worked for the Warner Robins Police Department from 1972-1976, but got involved with emergency medical services at Houston County Medical Center and decided to join them. I was there until about four years ago when I retired.
There was a period there when people worked as coroner for about six months then quit. It just wasnt for them. Deputy Coroner Louis Skaggs would fill in. When election time came, I asked him if he was running, and he said not if I would, so I did. I enjoy that it combines law enforcement and medical work. I became a certified forensic nurse with the American College of Forensic Examiners Institute. All state coroners have three days training and are re-certified each year.
-- Michael W. Pannell