ATLANTA -- The case of a midstate coroner who’s been charged with violating his oath of office is headed for the desk of Gov. Nathan Deal.
In the coming days, Deal will receive a recommendation from a three-member panel that must determine if an indictment against Crawford County Coroner Allen O’Neal is hindering the conduct of public business.
If so, the panel, consisting of Attorney General Sam Olens plus two coroners, could recommend that the governor suspend O’Neal.
After a hearing Friday, O’Neal said he’s done nothing wrong.
“I’ve done my job for the last 22 and a half years honestly and fairly and by the law and by my oath of office, and I’ll continue to do so,” O’Neal said.
Coroners respond to death scenes to make sure everything is in order before pronouncing death and to rule out the need for further investigation by looking for any signs of foul play.
What triggered the indictment was a death call on May 2. Wayne Haywood, O’Neal’s distant kin by marriage, had died. Haywood had recently been in the hospital, and a 911 call came in that he had been found unresponsive. Haywood was dead when first responders found him. They called O’Neal to the scene.
When O’Neal got the call about Haywood’s death, O’Neal asked that someone from the county come pick him up.
That request for a ride was the breaking point in a conflict between O’Neal and Crawford commissioners.
O’Neal has repeatedly requested an official vehicle to drive to death calls. He’s also requested a better county office plus a home phone, Internet and fax service for after-hours work. The county has turned him down.
O’Neal has asked a court to force the county to get him a vehicle, but earlier this year, the court threw out the request.
The Haywood death was the first call he had gotten since he wrote the county a letter saying his office would only respond to calls via official transportation of some sort. He had instructed his deputies not to take their personal cars to calls either.
O’Neal told the panel in Atlanta that the law entitles him to the equipment he requires to do his job. And that includes a vehicle, he said.
He said he objects to using his own vehicle for two reasons. First, he said doesn’t want body fluids from a death scene infecting a car his grandchildren will ride in. Second, he said it’s not clear that insurance would cover his personal car if it’s driven on a law enforcement mission.
O’Neal did not go to the Haywood death. He told the panel that he did not think it was a suspicious death and that he could handle it via phone. But first responders instead called a deputy Crawford coroner.
O’Neal fired the deputy for disobeying his order to stay away from calls.
A grand jury subsequently indicted O’Neal on two counts of violation of his oath of office, saying he failed to take charge of a body and he fired the deputy who did so.
“A coroner who will not come to a death scene and who orders his deputies not to do so either is not a functioning coroner and is not fulfilling the duties of his office and his duties to the public,” David Cooke, district attorney of the Macon Judicial Circuit, told the Atlanta panel.
He accused O’Neal of leaving a grieving family with a dead body in their midst for the sake of political gamesmanship.
As a condition of his bond, O’Neal has given up coroner work, though not the title.
O’Neal’s attorney, Bonnie Smith, said her client should not be suspended because the office is serving the public, albeit without its head. And, she contended, he will be acquitted of the charges.
The panel’s recommendation will not be made public unless or until Deal decides to do so.