Congratulations and thanks go to staff members of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette for their recent article detailing the often inadequate coroner system in Arkansas.
The article explained how the state’s coroner system, which it described as “fractured,” creates uneven and often incomplete reporting on unusual or suspicious deaths.
Let us make clear here that we are not calling into question the performance or ability of our county coroner. But this is not to say that has not been the case in years past or could very well be in the future. That is because, while the elected position calls for critical determinations by the person filling the position, there are no professional requirements to be elected to the job.
Although there are no education or professional qualifications to be a county coroner, state law requires the office-holder to determine the manner and cause of deaths and to issue final findings about the deaths. How that is done across the state varies despite the assumption that coroners’ reports would be uniform regardless of the location of counties where they are made.
For instance, as the article pointed out, while state law requires a final report describing findings in a death, many coroners skip writing death scene details, only filling in death certificates. In another example of how the current system can be lacking in reporting accuracy, the article states that, in answering the newspaper’s questions about reporting of deaths of children, six county coroners supplied reports with the names of the decedents and other details blacked out, a violation of the public records law. Other coroners responding to the newspaper’s request said they hadn’t had any minors die in their counties since 2012, which is almost unbelievable.
It is easy to presume that, as prosecuting attorneys must be licensed lawyers, individuals making medical determinations (and it would seem that a declaration of death is a medical pronouncement) should be required to be professionally qualified.
But we do not have a county medical examiner system in Arkansas and most counties probably would neither be able to afford such expertise nor require it on a regular basis.
The Democrat-Gazette article illustrates that, while the state has certain reporting requirements for reporting deaths, there needs to be more stringent oversight to ensure that county coroners comply with those requirements.