Inquests serve as investigative tool

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Inquests are an investigative tool, particularly useful when trying to determine whether a person has a valid self-defense claim or was justified in committing a killing.

Inquests are typically prepared by the coroner, with the assistance of a prosecutor, according to Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle. The prosecutor assists in instructing the jury and questioning the witnesses.

According to Swingle, Cape Girardeau County has called coroner's juries in several situations, including when a reserve police officer shot a man who charged him with a knife in an emergency room, and when two police officers killed a man in a motel room during a gunfight following a "knock and talk" search of his room. The shooting was ruled self-defense in the first case and justified in the second. In each case, an inquest made the time and effort of a jury trial unnecessary.

"These are like Halley's comet. They don't come around too often," Swingle said.

Six people serve on a coroner's jury, which is a public governmental body, and the inquest itself functions as a public meeting.

Under current Missouri law, a coroner may investigate any death due to violence, criminal abortion, any death that occurs when someone is in the custody of law enforcement and any death that occurs for suspicious or unknown reasons. A coroner's inquest can be held when any additional inquiry into circumstances surrounding a death is necessary.

-- Bridget DiCosmo

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