Coroners violate law with hasty cremations and cursory autopsies, families say
Relatives of homicide victims testify at Senate committee
When there is a chance that a crime was committed leading to someone’s death, coroners in Louisiana are supposed to perform an autopsy, but many are not. (Getty Images)
Some coroners in Louisiana ignore state autopsy laws and illegally cremate bodies even when deaths occur under suspicious circumstances, according to testimony in a legislative committee.
The testimony came Tuesday from parish coroners and relatives of homicide victims who are closely watching a bill that would make changes to when a coroner is allowed to issue a cremation permit. Senate Bill 187, sponsored by Sen. Caleb Kleinpeter, R-Port Allen, passed the Senate Judiciary B Committee without objection, but Kleinpeter said the current version of his proposal is inadequate to address the concerns he heard on Tuesday.
Several Louisiana residents detailed to committee members how their local coroners either hastily cremated bodies of their loved ones or failed to conduct autopsies, allowing killers to escape justice.
Kathryn Simpson recounted the 2008 death of her mother, Kimberly Womack, in Pointe Coupee Parish. Sheriff’s deputies immediately told Simpson her mother died by accident when she slipped and hit her head on the floor at her home, she said.
The coroner at that time, Dr. Harry Kellerman, performed an autopsy and discovered Womack was covered in bruises, had multiple fractured ribs and brain hemorrhages from multiple blows to her skull. Womack was beaten to death, and Kellerman ruled the incident a homicide, Simpson said.
But the sheriff’s office wasn’t eager to investigate and failed to collect major pieces of evidence from the scene. Just three days after Womack’s death, Kellerman, who has since died, issued a permit to have her body cremated.
During those initial days, Simpson said she and her relatives were kept in the dark about many of the suspicious findings and trusted what investigators told them at the time. She started asking questions after her mother’s boyfriend, who was a sheriff’s deputy in West Baton Rouge Parish, didn’t go to the funeral. She then learned the deputy was married and had kept it a secret from her mother.
“The coroner was our last line of defense in saving my mother’s body as evidence, and he failed us,” Simpson said. “He issued that permit to cremate.”
The law on cremations
To many, Louisiana law on cremations is clear: “If the investigation reveals suspicious circumstances or the reasonable probability of the commission of a crime, the coroner shall deny the permit.”
A related statute says that the “coroner shall perform” or order an autopsy whenever there is “reasonable probability that the violation of a criminal statute has contributed to the death.”
West Baton Rouge Parish Deputy Coroner Yancy Guerin told senators his office errs on the side of caution. That sometimes means denying cremation permits and performing autopsies on drug overdose deaths because they can be crimes under state law, and police are supposed to investigate and try to arrest the person who sold the deadly drugs, Guerin said.
However, the proliferation of overdose deaths has made it difficult because cremation is the only option for many low-income families who cannot afford burials.
“It’s pretty clear to me that if your investigation reveals a crime was committed, you deny the permit,” Guerin said. “But by doing that, for us to follow the law, to me it’s difficult to tell a family, ‘Look, I’m sorry, [but] according to this statute, we have to deny this permit.’ It’s hard on funeral homes. It’s hard on families.”
Other coroners aren’t doing autopsies on overdose victims.
Jefferson Parish Coroner Dr. Gerry Cvitanovich, who is also president of the Louisiana State Coroner’s Association, told the committee he only performs external exams and toxicology tests on the majority of overdose deaths in his parish. Additional autopsies can exacerbate a shortage of resources.
“The national shortage of physicians who specialize in forensic pathology is at crisis levels, not just in Louisiana but across the entire country,” Cvitanovich said.
Another provision in state law muddies the water because it says a coroner may issue a cremation permit “after completion of the coroner’s investigation.” A coroner’s investigation isn’t the same as that of a law enforcement agency. For some coroners, an investigation can mean a thorough autopsy and a battery of forensic tests, but for others it might be nothing more than a brief glance at the body.
Other botched cases
According to Regina Hebert, East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner Beau Clark botched the 2018 investigation into the death of her son, Dylan McClendon. Because he was found dead at a sober living home, the coroner’s investigators made a quick assumption that it was an overdose death and refused to do an autopsy, she said.
But a sheriff’s deputy’s investigation uncovered a series of inconsistent statements from witnesses at the home, Hebert said. Detectives ultimately suspected McClendon’s roommates strangled him. Four people were arrested, but because an autopsy wasn’t performed, a grand jury failed to indict the suspects, and they’re now free, she said.
In a more recent case, the same coroner’s office made a careless ruling on Jan 1, 2020, in the death of 26-year-old Joah Ross. A coroner’s investigator sent the young man’s tattoo-covered body to a local funeral home without a thorough examination, assuming it must have been drugs that killed him.
A day later, a Hall Davis Funeral Home employee found a bullet in Ross’ stomach while preparing the body for a funeral.
Clark’s office didn’t respond Friday to a request for comment.
Several others testified to similar instances that occurred in Livingston Parish, most involving the assumption of drug overdoses. They all told the committee that some coroners ignore the state laws because no one enforces them.
“What does it mean when any person knowingly violates your statutes or breaks the law over and over with no repercussions and absolute immunity?” Simpson asked the senators. “It renders the work you do here meaningless. It makes you a vacant façade of faces meant to pacify the public and not to be taken seriously.”
Black motorist Ronald Greene’s body was cremated shortly after he was beaten to death by five white police officers on the side of a Union Parish highway in May 2019. Last year, state lawmakers on an investigative panel questioned the issuance of that cremation permit but got no clear answers.
In an interview this week, Simpson said she and other victim families have banded together to form the nonprofit Road to Justice, which works to hold coroners and other officials to ethical standards and helps families of homicide victims navigate the process of death investigations.
For Kleinpeter, Tuesday’s committee testimony made him reconsider his bill’s language. In an interview Thursday, the freshman senator said he plans to discuss the issue further with both the family members and the coroners, admitting that he faces a tricky dilemma with pitfalls on both sides.
The current version, with amendments from the Coroner’s Association, would make it clear coroners can issue a cremation permit or release a body whenever they deem their own investigations complete, but that could lead to more hasty cremations.
Kleinpeter said he initially wrote the bill because some funeral homes complained the West Baton Rouge coroner was moving too slow because of all the autopsies it conducted. Now, he’s concerned the problem could be with other coroners not performing autopsies.
“Am I creating more of a problem?” Kleinpeter asked, reflecting on the potential effects of his legislation. “I think there’s some problems in the Coroner’s Association — different coroners doing different things in terms of what the current law is… We didn’t know we had this much of a problem with coroners not doing autopsies until the testimony from the family members.”
On the other hand, legislation that strengthens the autopsy mandate or further restricts cremations could cause more work for coroners and attract opposition from the Coroner’s Association.
Doctors and police officers can be very resistant when people question them or push them to actually do their jobs, Simpson said.
“We need more oversight,” she said.
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