Politics & Government

House panel moves to scrap education, experience requirements for coroners

FILE: A mother and her two young children died over the New Year's weekend of apparent gunshot wounds in Lexington County in what authorities say was a murder-suicide. A fourth person who also died is the father of the children, according to the Lexington County Coroner's Office.
FILE: A mother and her two young children died over the New Year's weekend of apparent gunshot wounds in Lexington County in what authorities say was a murder-suicide. A fourth person who also died is the father of the children, according to the Lexington County Coroner's Office. tdominick@thestate.com

An S.C. House panel Wednesday unanimously OK’d a proposal to scrap state laws requiring that county coroners meet education and experience standards.

State Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Richland, says his bill strips “onerous” state laws that ensure only a handful of people in each county can run for the position.

“That’s not what elected office should look like,” Rutherford said, adding more qualifications are required of county coroners than U.S. presidents.

But S.C. coroners say the laws guarantee only qualified people are elected to investigate suspicious or unexpected deaths.

State law currently demands candidates for county coroner meet one of several requirements, including having three years of experience in death investigation or two years of experience in law enforcement, or holding a nursing or medical degree or a forensic science certificate.

Rutherford’s bill would strike those qualifications, so long as newly elected coroners complete a basic, 40-hour training course – already required of all coroners – within a year of their election.

However, that course is not nearly enough, says Cherokee County Coroner Dennis Fowler, president of the S.C. Coroners Association.

Unqualified coroners would not know the clues to look for when investigating suspicious deaths, Fowler said, adding experience is invaluable in a job with high stakes. “Anybody off the street” could misjudge a homicide as an accident or vice versa, possibly letting criminals go free, he said.

“Would you take the qualifications away from being a sheriff so you can get anybody that’s never even shot a gun to be your sheriff?” Fowler asked.

However, Rutherford says an amendment to his bill takes care of that concern. State Rep. John King, D-York, tweaked the proposal to require that coroners who lack qualifications hire a medical examiner to help with certain investigations.

“That’s what the medical examiner is for. That’s what law enforcement is for. There are so many provisions already in the law to catch things like that,” Rutherford said.

However, Fowler said hiring a medical examiner could be burdensome for smaller counties. Rutherford countered the medical examiner could work only part time.

The bill now heads to the full House Judiciary Committee. Fowler says his group will fight the proposal as it moves forward.

Avery G. Wilks: 803-771-8362, @averygwilks

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