The County Line: Coroner probes deaths, but causes sometimes difficult to determine

Sunday, December 26, 2010
Cape Girardeau County Coroner John Clifton talks about his work Monday. (Fred Lynch)

Cape Girardeau County Coroner John Clifton said his job isn't for most people but is one that presents him with daily challenges.

"Anyone who says they like being coroner probably needs to consider some professional counseling," he said. "It is a challenging job. It is an interesting job. You try to find out why did this person die. They should not be dead. You try to unravel the mystery."

Clifton and his staff of two part-time deputy coroners are responsible for investigating certain types of death in the county, such as homicides, suicides, child deaths, unusual deaths and deaths in nursing homes, residential care and hospice situations.

He said despite his knowledge and tools, sometimes the cause of death can't be found.

"The family wants answers. A lot of times the law enforcement wants answers and sometimes we can give them answers and sometimes we can't," he said. "Sometimes people just die and we don't know why. It's frustrating."

As a first-class county, Cape Girardeau County can have a medical examiner but has chosen to retain the coroner system. Clifton said keeping a coroner makes more sense financially.

"Typically medical examiners are doctors, and they have a staff of investigators. Economically, it would be unbelievably more expensive for this county to go to the medical examiner system," he said.

A forensic pathologist is hired as needed, typically 15 to 20 times a year.

Clifton said he can usually find answers through toxicology reports on blood and fluid samples.

He said the county's system works well, although he does predict his office, a part-time position, will eventually become full time. Since he took office in 2005, the coroner's office has seen an increase of about 200 deaths per year, creating more demands on him and his staff.

Clifton attributes the development and growth of Cape Girardeau County to the increase in deaths. He said his office is also seeing an increase in the number of drug overdoses.

Since taking office, Clifton has seen the establishment of a county morgue. He said that before the morgue, bodies would be removed from a crime scene by a funeral home and taken there for examination. He said the morgue provides a secure location for storing and examining a body, because in the case of a homicide, the body is evidence.

Clifton said there have been several changes in legislation since 2005 that affect his job.

In 2006 he authored a bill allowing Missouri coroners to offer each other mutual aid in the event of a disaster, without having to wait for approval from commissioners.

A 2008 law referred to as the Revert Bill has changed the way deaths are investigated when the cause occurred outside of Cape Girardeau County.

Often with a major trauma or traffic accident, a victim will be flown to Cape Girardeau for treatment and will die while there. Before the bill, it was Clifton's responsibility to investigate the cause, even if he had no jurisdiction where the event occurred.

"How could I have the authority to go to Butler County to investigate a traffic accident? I don't," he said.

Now the investigation reverts to authorities in the county of the accident. However, the law does not apply to accidents occurring in another state, which still creates problems for the office.

In 2011, Clifton's office will test the electronic filing of death certificates. The program, if successful, could provide certificates to survivors in a more timely manner, Clifton said.

The coroner's office was created under Chapter 58 of Missouri State Statutes. The 2010 budget from county revenue for the office was $119,679.

For more county budgetary information, visit http://www.capecounty.us/Budgetary%20Inf....

cbartholomew@semissourian.com

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