Coroner’s office gets rare national accreditation

jmonk@thestate.comOctober 6, 2013 

Richland Coroner Gary Watts

— The Richland County coroner’s office has won national accreditation status from the 700-member International Association of Coroners.

The national accreditation designation means that the Richland office meets the highest possible standards, including being independent, said association president John Fudenberg.

“I came to South Carolina expecting to find the stereotypical smaller coroner’s office in the South, and much to my surprise I was impressed to find out how progressive they are and how well-trained,” said Fudenberg, International Association of Coroners president and a member of the coroners’ team that accredited coroner Gary Watts’ office. Fudenberg is coroner of the 1.19 million population Clark County, Nev., home of Las Vegas.

That accreditation, along with the recent county council approval of $2.5 million for a new coroner’s headquarters building, means that Watts is riding high these days. His office investigates just about any Richland County death that’s not natural, including all child deaths.

“I always said we wanted to be the best,” said Watts, 57, who won election in 2000 by ousting 22-year incumbent Frank Barron.

At that time, the Richland coroner’s office had a $500,000-a-year budget, handled some 1,400 death cases a year and had four full-time employees, four part-time and one volunteer. The coroner’s salary was $66,430.

Now, Watts’ office handles about 3,000 cases a year, has a budget of $1.5 million with nine full-time employees, 22 part-time and 35 volunteers. It uses the services of two forensic pathologists, who do some 400 autopsies a year. Watts makes $103,642.

Although the medical examiner often does an autopsy to determine the cause of a person’s death — gunshot wound, strangulation and so on — it’s up to Watts to approve that finding and make a further determination as to manner of death — homicide, accident or suicide.

Watts’ findings often provide crucial underpinning for some of the county’s highest-profile criminal cases. In the past year, Watts testified in the murder trial of bookie Brett Parker, and in another case involving victim Almanita Smith, whose decomposed body was left out on a suburban lawn.

Prosecutors put Watts, a former emergency medic and Forest Acres police officer, on the stand to sum up the medical and police investigative testimony.

In the July murder trial of Marcus Bailey, found guilty of killing Smith and leaving her body on the lawn, Watts told the jury that the combination of all the scientific and detectives’ investigation — and common sense — proved that Bailey killed Smith, most probably by strangling her. The body had been so badly decomposed the forensic pathologist could not determine the precise cause of death.

Fifth Circuit Solicitor Dan Johnson praises Watts for testimony like that. “The basis of everything we do is the evidence, and quality of the evidence.”

Richland Sheriff Leon Lott, whose detectives work with Watts, said, “You have three agencies that have to work hand in hand – the solicitor’s office, the sheriff’s department and coroner’s office. When you don’t have one of those three meeting a standard of excellence, the citizens suffer.”

Richland County council member Seth Rose, who recently voted to approve the $2.5 million for Watts’ new office, said Watts’ work doesn’t always serve to convict a guilty person – sometimes it determines when a person is innocent.

“It can work both ways,” said Rose, a defense attorney and former prosecutor.

As an elected official in a county with 45 percent African-American population, Watts keeps an eye on political winds.

Earlier this year, when two white Columbia city police officers shot and killed a 21-year-old black man in his north Columbia neighborhood, Watts called for an inquest — a rarely used form of investigative citizens’ panel.

Last month, over two days, the panel of three whites and three blacks heard from more than 20 witnesses before ruling that Ajani Mitchell’s death was justifiable homicide.

“The timing (of) our Columbia case, with what was going on down in Florida with that Trayvon Martin case, I thought it was best we have a jury look at it,” Watts said. “I wanted a jury to see and hear the facts.”

The accreditation certification singled Watts’ office’s CARE group of some three dozen volunteer grief counselors who assist in hundreds of cases a year where a deputy coroner goes to notify the next of kin of a sudden death.

“Years ago, when we had death calls, there wasn’t any kind of situation where we could stay with the family. We’d often go get the next-door neighbor to be with them,” Watts said. “But over the years, people don’t know their neighbors anymore, or neighbors don’t want to get involved.”

“I’m thinking of implementing that program in my office,” Fudenberg said. “That’s something Gary does better than most in the country.”

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