Nikki Dawes / Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

In some Arkansas counties, death records leave with outgoing coroners

Sebastian County Coroner Kenneth Hobbs keeps detailed reports for every death in his county. Just don’t ask him about anyone who died before he took office at the beginning of this year.

Hobbs said his office does not have reports for any death before Jan. 1, when he started. Those files were written under his predecessor, who did not bring them to the county office before he retired, Hobbs said.

That means the reports, which log details on where, when and how a person died, aren't readily accessible, a problem that experts say may not be illegal but is impractical and unnecessary. The reports are referenced by a slew of groups, including law enforcement, prosecutors, insurance adjusters and family members, well after a person dies.

Hobbs' predecessor, Terry Campbell, keeps the reports from his 10-year tenure at his home and in storage, Campbell said in a brief interview. It was his understanding that once a coroner leaves, he or she keeps those records, he said. The coroner before him who held the job for 20 years did the same, he added.

Campbell did not respond to subsequent phone calls seeking additional information about the arrangement.

Since he started, Hobbs said he’s gotten calls from about 10 people looking for information on their loved ones who died before New Year's Day. Usually, they ask how their relative died — or if that person even died in his county, Hobbs said.

"I don’t have a good answer for them, sometimes," Hobbs said.

Problem not unheard of

While not widespread, a county not keeping track of coroner’s reports isn’t unheard of, officials said. Though state law says the reports must be made, coroners have historically had significant control over their office and little access to job-specific training. But there’s been a recent push for more education to standardize the reporting process and stave off future record problems.

State law does not specify how long counties must keep coroner’s reports, but it does say those records are public once they’re finalized, save for a few exceptions, said Kevin Cleghorn, president of the Arkansas Coroners' Association. The reports should lie with the county agency, "not [with] the individual coroner" and “not [with] the retired coroner,” he said.

Cleghorn said he cannot speak to how any one office keeps records, but 12 of the state’s 75 coroners are new this year. It’s “not the first time I’ve heard this scenario,” he said, referencing Sebastian County's setup.

Two or three new coroners were sworn in this year with no access to records made under the previous custodians, Cleghorn said. One agency just never wrote reports, Cleghorn said, and in another county, the new coroner had to start from scratch.

“They had no equipment," he said. "They had no records. They had no documentation. They had nothing.”

Cleghorn declined to name the specific counties where the problems had occurred, saying they are doing better now.

Role of the coroner

Of the 30,952 people who died in Arkansas last year, a coroner or a medical examiner was contacted for the vast majority: slightly less than 83 percent, or 25,601 people, according to the Arkansas Department of Health. The agency only tracks whether an official was alerted, not if an investigation was conducted, spokesman Meg Mirivel said.

Arkansas coroners must investigate a lengthy list of types of deaths that can include people who died suddenly as well as those who died at home; people who died from suspected violence, drug overdoses, traffic accidents, explosions and fires; and people who died in police custody, in local jails, at outpatient facilities and on work sites, among others.

For each death, the coroner has to determine and record how that person died. They can contact other agencies like the state Crime Laboratory for assistance and must make a report within five days of a death.

The legal responsibility to then disclose those reports is on whoever has them, whether that’s a private or public entity, said Robert Steinbuch, a University of Arkansas at Little Rock law professor. If those records aren’t exempt from disclosure, the person who has them must produce them when requested or risk being prosecuted, he said.

Cleghorn, who is also the Saline County coroner, said he has frequently sat in front of panels of lawyers, walking them through each facet of a death that happened years ago. In those situations, a meticulous coroner’s report is “invaluable,” he said.

Standardizing the process

In Arkansas, a coroner’s reporting methods are largely up to that elected official, Cleghorn said. The Quorum Court controls the budget, but ultimately, the coroners "are the boss,” he said.

Missing records in a county’s coroner’s office could result from a few factors, Cleghorn said. Some coroners might have strained relationships with their county government agencies, which makes hunting down old reports more difficult, he said. Sample coroner report form

And until a few years ago, seminars on best practices were not easily accessible, Cleghorn said. Those who wanted any certification likely had to go out of state. Coroners are not required by state law to take any training before assuming office.

To offer guidance, the state coroners association sends out a manual with advice on investigations and record-keeping. It posts outlines of reporting forms online in hopes that coroners across Arkansas will adopt similar procedures, Cleghorn said.

In 2013, state lawmakers established the County Coroners Continuing Education Fund — a special revenue fund that's allocated $52,500 annually to finance between 16 and 40 hours of coroner training. This year, legislators added an incentive. Under Act 194, if a coroner completes a certification course, the county can boost the official's pay to the maximum possible amount allotted by state law.

Three five-day courses are on the books, and nine coroners and deputy coroners have already signed up for the April slot, Cleghorn said. Thirty people have completed the course since it has been offered, and 16 have partially completed it, he said, noting that those numbers include both coroners and deputy coroners.

Though the training is encouraged and not required, interest among officials is growing, Cleghorn said.

“They’re wanting the education. ... I like that. That’s what we’re looking for,” he said.

Not an isolated problem

St. Francis County’s new chief deputy coroner, Effie Clay, said she has no idea where reports from previous years are kept. She didn’t get the paperwork — or a standard reporting form — when she was sworn in.

“You have to start all over,” Clay said.

A self-described “addict for learning,” Clay said she and her boss took state-sponsored classes and even paid out of pocket for a weeklong seminar in St. Louis. The instruction covered everything from drawing blood to reporting infant deaths and gave her confidence to handle calls in the field, she said.

Another new coroner, Renee Clay-Circle of Sharp County, said she isn’t sure if the old coroner even kept records. She built her eight-page reporting form by looking online at what other counties did, then combining the best parts, she said.

Detailed reports are necessary because “if you’ve got 30, 40 deaths a month, it all runs together,” she said.

And the deaths can get complicated. For one woman, the reporting process took 16 hours of writing subpoenas, scouring medical records and reviewing pharmacy security camera footage, Clay-Circle said.

There’s a misconception that coroners are just there to transport the body, but they help answer the major question of how a person died, Cleghorn said. That answer matters to the county but also to deceased people's families, who call his office daily, he said.
Pulaski County Coroner Gerone Hobbs investigates a body found on the side of U.S. 67 in this 2012 file photo.

Saline County’s coroner reports date back to 1980. But occasionally, Cleghorn said, he can’t help the person on the other end of the line. Recently, someone called hoping to find information on his uncle’s killing. The man died in 1969, so there was nothing Cleghorn could do.

Pulaski County Coroner Gerone Hobbs said he gets frequent calls from families who want answers years after a death. People grieve differently, he said, and the caller will sometimes tell him, “I’m just now getting around to feeling like talking about it.”

The other day, a man called the Pulaski County coroner's office to ask about his wife, who killed herself seven years ago. The husband said that when he found her body, he went into shock and couldn’t remember many details from that moment.

Now, years later, the man wanted to know more. He asked questions like where the gun was found, how his wife was positioned in the bed, if her body was covered or uncovered. Hobbs went to the county office's storage facility, pulled the file and answered them, he said.

“That’s what we’re here for," he said. "To try to help, you know, the loved ones that are left behind."