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Coroner candidates disagree on how to run office


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Sangamon County Coroner Susan Boone, left, and challenger Aby Phoenix.
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THE STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER
Posted Oct 22, 2008 @ 12:12 AM
Last update Oct 22, 2008 @ 06:46 AM

Two women vying to be Sangamon County coroner agree on one thing: Its an important job.

Beyond that, Republican incumbent Susan Boone and Democratic challenger Aby Phoenix cant find much common ground in how to run an office thats responsible for investigating homicides, suicides and other deaths in which foul play may or may not be involved.

Phoenix, an emergency room nurse and political newcomer who says she didnt know she could run for coroner until a year ago, accuses Boone of reaching questionable conclusions about how people have died.

Not to be accusatory, but I think theres a lot of cases that are not being handled 100 percent truthfully, Phoenix says.

Take the case of Amber Strode, whose body was found mutilated by pit bulls in January. Cocaine overdose, Boone concluded after an autopsy and toxicology test. Not so, says Strode, who accuses Boone of settling on an accidental overdose to avoid upsetting Strodes family.

The Strode case illustrates why thorough investigations are needed so that no one jumps to conclusions, Boone said at a Tuesday meeting with The State Journal-Registers editorial board.

Its very, very important that an investigation be done and be done properly, said Boone, adding that she considers herself a law enforcement officer.

However, Boone, who is seeking a fourth term for the office that pays $77,844 a year, doesnt always wait for toxicology tests before reaching conclusions, nor does she always draw blood from drivers in fatal vehicle accidents, as required by state law.

In the case of Todd Blaum, an off-duty Lincoln police officer who died after driving his pickup truck off a road and into a creek bed near Sherman, Boone held an inquest last year before toxicology tests results were returned. Similarly, Boone did not wait for toxicology tests before holding an inquest for Shaun M. Jones, who was hit by a train last year. Boone said she didnt wait for test results because there was no reason to suspect criminal conduct, and families shouldnt have to wait for tests.

After the Blaum inquest, Boone told reporters that toxicology results could only be obtained from Blaums family. During Tuesdays meeting, however, she told The State Journal-Register that her office would release the test results upon request.

In 2006, Boone did not draw blood from Douglas C. Eddington Sr., who died in a single-vehicle accident after his truck rolled over in Dawson. A Riverton police officer reported seeing a truck resembling Eddingtons speeding shortly before the crash, and another officers wife said shed been run off the road by a truck that looked like the one Eddington was driving. Police found a cooler and beer cans amid debris where Eddingtons truck came to rest in a freshly harvested cornfield.

At the time, Boone said she didnt do an autopsy or order a toxicology test because there wasnt sufficient evidence that alcohol was involved.

On Tuesday, Boone said beer cans are often found at crash sites, but she admitted she had erred in not drawing blood from Eddington.
That was, Im going to say, a one-time thing, she said.

Phoenix, who was accompanied by her campaign manager at Tuesdays editorial board meeting, said she wouldnt hold inquests until toxicology results are in. But she changed her answer when asked whether test results are public records. Initially, she said that she would decide whether to release results on a case-by-case basis. Then, she expressed doubts.

I dont know, honestly, Phoenix said. I havent had enough experience. ... Probably, they all should be open, if you think about it, in the case of a death where theres cocaine or alcohol or whats in their system.

While Boone sat alone, Josh Witkowski, Phoenixs campaign manager, jumped in to answer questions about delays the Democratic candidate says she encountered when requesting public records from the coroners office. Phoenix also didnt immediately know the coroners annual budget and had to refer to a document she brought to the meeting.

I apologize, I just got these three days ago, she said.

Phoenix said she would hire a forensic pathologist as opposed to an anatomical pathologist to conduct autopsies. A forensic pathologist, she said, would do a more thorough job in determining the circumstances surrounding deaths. For instance, while an anatomical pathologist would simply say a gunshot wound was present, a forensic pathologist would determine bullet angles, she said.

Phoenix said the coroner should have experience in the medical field, and her background as a nurse would serve her well as coroner, a job she believes shouldnt be an elective post. She said she only recently realized that she could run.

If people dont know me or dont meet me, how can they know Im qualified, other than that Im a nice person? Phoenix said. I did not know you didnt need any qualifications to be a coroner.

Boone said she has computerized many of the offices records. She also said shed like to establish a stand-alone morgue instead of using Memorial Medical Center.

We are overwhelming Memorial, Boone said.

Phoenix said theres no reason to set up a new morgue because the cost would be outrageous.

Bruce Rushton can be reached at 788-1542.

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