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Homicides: Coroner wants Decatur police to notify him sooner

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Decatur Police 2 11.28.17

A Decatur Police officer searches Hilton Street around the area of a reported shooting at the corner of 800 East Main Street and 100 North Hilton Street in November. 

JIM BOWLING, HERALD & REVIEW

DECATUR — Adrian Chatman's shooting death in late September touched off a series of routine events that happen every time a murder occurs — police responding to the scene, evidence getting collected, the coroner being contacted.

But in this case, from when police were called to the scene to the coroner pronouncing Chatman dead, his body lie on the street for five hours and two minutes, a time Michael Day said is too drawn-out.

The time-frame is an issue familiar to Day, the Macon County coroner for 25 years. In the majority of deaths in 2017, Day said he was called promptly. But in four of the 10 homicide cases last year, he said police waited too long before alerting him.

In three cases, the person died at the hospital. In the remaining incidents, bodies remained at the crime scene from 2 hours and 30 minutes to seven hours and 30 minutes before Day was able to pronounce death, according to data the coroner provided to the Herald & Review. Day said he typically is able to arrive at the scene within minutes of being notified to pronounce death.

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Chatman

Chatman

To Day, the time elapsing before he is informed by police impinges on his core responsibilities — to pronounce the time of death, determine the cause and tell the next of kin.

“If I don’t know if someone is deceased and who they are, how would I be able to put a notification process into play?” Day said.

Cinda Edwards, president of the Illinois Coroners & Medical Examiners Association and the Sangamon County coroner, said the time frame surprised her.

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Cinda Edwards

Cinda Edwards

“I don’t think that falls into prompt notification, and I understand that the police need to do some evidence-gathering,” she said, when contacted by the Herald & Review. Seven hours “is way beyond the scope of timely notification of the coroner.”

To police, they say such time is needed to process a crime scene and effectively collect evidence. Deputy Chief David T. Dickerson said the notification is a conscious effort by the police to benefit the coroner.

“We try to prevent the coroner from standing around from hours on end,” Dickerson said. “A coroner can be notified within 10 minutes and have to wait for hours on end to take possession of the body.”

Decatur police Chief James Getz has been out of the office at training since Jan. 10 and previously did not respond to questions for this story.

The different points of view highlight the sensitive and often overlapping nature of coroner and police responsibilities, made all the more complicated by the rise of social media that makes it possible to beam images and videos of crime scenes to cellphones in an instant.

For both sides, a key issue is a single phrase of state law that says anyone who has possession of a dead body “shall notify the coroner promptly.” No specific time is noted.

Macon County State’s Attorney Jay Scott said the statute “gives us the question of what does promptly mean; you find those in a lot of statutes, and it uses that word but there is no definition for what that means.”

Day agreed that the law doesn’t give a clear answer.

“My opinion of ‘promptly’ may not be the opinion of someone else, especially if they are involved in a crime investigation,” he said.

Day said on Wednesday that other law enforcement officials, after being contacted by the Herald & Review, brought up the notification issue at a recent regular meeting with Decatur police representatives, Macon County Sheriff Howard Buffett and Scott.

Part of the delay, Day said, is the police’s desire to process the crime scene before contacting him.

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autopsies pic

Macon County Coroner Michael Day and assistant Tina Engdale work in his office in the Macon County Courthouse in this 2017 file photo. “If I don’t know if someone is deceased and who they are, how would I be able to put a notification process into play?” Day said.

“These fellows get involved in what they are doing, and think they are not ready for the coroner to come and take the body,” he said. “And they don't realize they should be calling in the coroner.”

This was the case the night when Chatman, 21, was shot.

When Joe Harrison took his dog out around 2 a.m., he could see the body on the ground outside a house.

“There must have been 75 or 80 people lined up across the street watching it all, and there were women crying and screaming,” Harrison told the Herald & Review at the time. “The police had the whole intersection near my house blocked off, and there was yellow (crime scene) tape all the way up and down the street.”

Said Harrison: “The body stayed there until about 6 a.m."

No arrests have been made.

A question of ‘prompt’

Dickerson said the department notifies the coroner of the incident as police wrap up processing the crime scene. That’s because the coroner would not contribute to the investigation, which is completed by a team of crime scene investigators, he said.

“Mike Day does not do the crime-scene processing,” Dickerson said. “The coroner doesn’t have the same crime-scene training that these investigators do.”

But Edwards, of the state coroners association, said the police and coroner are equal partners in a death investigation, which makes the Macon County situation more surprising.

“I would not think of, if I was called to a death scene, of not letting the police know if they had not been notified,” she said.

Coroners are elected in Illinois, which also is one of 26 states in which a medical degree isn’t required to hold the position. Coroners do, however, have to undergo crime-scene and investigative training in order to fulfill their duties, which include determining the manner and cause of sudden, unexpected deaths.

Also part of the job, according to the Macon County coroner’s website, is “the ability to correctly complete the death certificate with regard to cause and manner of death may require review of medical records, interviews with those who knew the deceased, and those who provided medical care, etc. In some cases an autopsy will be performed as part of the investigation.”

Idaho is the only other state that uses the phrase “promptly notify” in the coroner statute, which says both law enforcement and the coroner must quickly notify each other if they are made aware of a death. Seven states use the term “immediately” to specify when the coroner should be told of a death.

Edwards said the detail is important because the period of time between the death and the coroner’s arrival can affect an investigation. The body begins to decay the moment the heart stops beating, and the longer before it is inspected, the more difficult it becomes to assess the body, she said. Rigor mortis can set in as soon as two to three hours after the death. Postmortem changes can also indicate if the body was moved by someone at the scene, which can help validate witness statements and the cause of death, according to the National Institute of Justice.

When a lot of time passes before someone is pronounced dead, questions about the handling of the situation may follow, she said.

“That’s hard to explain to families, when there is a discrepancy of seven hours,” she said.

Another concern is that after the coroner gets to the scene, nobody is to touch the body, Edwards said. She said she would worry that the scene had been tampered with or the body had been moved before her arrival.

Day said he has not had problems with either of these situations. He said he always asks if a body had been moved when he arrives.

While the investigation is completed and the coroner is not aware anyone was killed, the families of victims wait.

“I realize that people’s emotions are really raw when tragedy strikes your family,” Day said. “Every five minutes seems like five hours, and every five hours seems like five days because of the grief factors.”

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Park City

Michael Roberts-Mathenia and Jonathan Ballance were shot as they sat in their home in the Park City Mobile Home community on Halloween night. Roberts-Mathenia's mother found out about the murder from a post on social media, hours after her son was killed. 

That was the case with Michael Roberts-Mathenia, 43, and Jonathon Ballance, 34, who were shot in their home Halloween night.

For seven hours and 30 minutes, Roberts-Mathenia’s body sat in a chair before the coroner was able to pronounce death. Ballance’s was on the floor, where authorities believe he landed when he was shot as he tried to run. Kwantrevis D. Richardson, 20, is charged with first-degree murder in the case.

Marilyn Roberts, the mother of Roberts-Mathenia, said she found about her son's death on Facebook. It was a video from a TV station.

“That’s Mike’s trailer,” she remembers saying to her husband around 5 a.m. on Nov. 1.

Day said he likes for families to know as soon as possible.

“It is unfortunate that time lags,” he said. “It is a tough situation.”

Dickerson said they need time to complete the crime scene work, which helps the case for detectives and ultimately helps the families.

“Any family of a victim of a horrific crime like murder would understand the documentation should be at the forefront,” he said.

Working together

The biggest problem Day has experienced is people finding out about deaths on social media, which “is a situation that is not necessarily unusual.”

“I hate that when that happens. I don’t think that’s very good or humane,” Day said. “I have told folks in the past, even if I had a jet plane warming up outside the residence, that I can’t beat Facebook and beat the cellphone.”

Using the data Day provided, the average time between police receiving a call to a crime scene and him pronouncing the victim dead was 5½ hours last year.

Day said “there are a lot of things we could be doing” to trim the time. If police say they are still working at a crime scene, he said, he would allow them to continue to investigate.

“If they have things they need to do, could we enter the scene and ascertain the circumstances and let them carry on?” he said. “We’ve done that many times.”

But Day said in order to reach these solutions and achieve accurate times of death, he needs to be notified sooner.

“We have a good working relationship with everybody. This is just a situation where things have lagged a little bit and could that be better?” he said. “I think that is worth talking about.”

To address this time delay, Day said he held a “major meeting” a few years ago. Attendees included then-Police Chief Todd Walker and Scott.

Data: Decatur shootings surpass 2016 total

“I knew this question was going to be raised by the media at one point or another, and I’ve been telling the other agencies that for years” Day said. “I knew this was going to present itself at some point that somebody was going to ask why.”

Dickerson and Detective Sgt. Steven Carroll said Day had not contacted the department.

“No comment on that,” Carroll said. "If Day thinks that’s a long time, all right, that’s fine. It is what it is."

Scott said he had not heard of the notification issue, but when told by the Herald & Review of the meeting a few years ago, he said he remembered attending it.

The meeting did not produce lasting results, however, Day said. After the Herald & Review began asking questions, Day said he would hold another meeting when the agencies had time, which occurred within the past two weeks. Out of that, he said, police told him they will try to keep him informed of homicide cases and the status of investigations.

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Jay Scott

Scott

Edwards said cooperation is key. In cases when she felt should have been told sooner, Edwards expressed her displeasure and the issue was soon addressed by the police department.

“I would hope that the police and the coroner’s offices would have a good enough working relationship that they could call the coroner,” she said, “and let them know what they are doing and when they expect to be done with their peripheral investigation.”

This map shows the seven Decatur homicides in 2017 in which victims were pronounced dead at the scene by the Macon County coroner or his deputy. Click on the icons to see more information about each incident.  

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