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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: It’s an important job.

Beyond that, Republican incumbent Susan Boone and Democratic challenger Aby Phoenix can’t find much common ground in how to run an office that’s 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 didn’t 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 there’s 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 Strode’s 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-Register’s editorial board.

“It’s 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, doesn’t 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 didn’t wait for test results because there was no reason to suspect criminal conduct, and families shouldn’t have to wait for tests.

After the Blaum inquest, Boone told reporters that toxicology results could only be obtained from Blaum’s family. During Tuesday’s 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 Eddington’s speeding shortly before the crash, and another officer’s wife said she’d 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 Eddington’s truck came to rest in a freshly harvested cornfield.

At the time, Boone said she didn’t do an autopsy or order a toxicology test because there wasn’t 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, I’m going to say, a one-time thing,” she said.

Phoenix, who was accompanied by her campaign manager at Tuesday’s editorial board meeting, said she wouldn’t 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 don’t know, honestly,” Phoenix said. “I haven’t had enough experience. ... Probably, they all should be open, if you think about it, in the case of a death where there’s cocaine or alcohol or what’s in their system.”

While Boone sat alone, Josh Witkowski, Phoenix’s campaign manager, jumped in to answer questions about delays the Democratic candidate says she encountered when requesting public records from the coroner’s office. Phoenix also didn’t immediately know the coroner’s 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 shouldn’t be an elective post. She said she only recently realized that she could run.

“If people don’t know me or don’t meet me, how can they know I’m qualified, other than that I’m a nice person?” Phoenix said. “I did not know you didn’t need any qualifications to be a coroner.”

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

“We are overwhelming Memorial,” Boone said.

Phoenix said there’s 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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