Cover Story: The 'New' Coroner's Office

Six months in, O'dell Owens is making change

CSI: Cincinnati

Pensively sitting in a nondescript county office building on a recently redeveloped corner in Corryville, Charlene Walker — mother of Kenneth Lackey, Cincinnati homicide victim No. 51 in 2004 — waits to talk with Hamilton County Coroner Dr. O'dell Owens.

The two met at the Avondale Branch Public Library during a meeting of "Who Killed Our Kids," a support group for the families of victims in unsolved homicides. This particular session focused on issues contributing to the escalating number of unsolved killings, including a lack of witness cooperation and problems in police/community relations. Owens was asked to discuss the role his office plays.

"The coroner's office is here to support justice," he said. "We're neutral. The science speaks for itself."

He elaborated on the various functions of the coroner's office, which is required under Ohio law to investigate the cause of death in cases of homicide, suicide, drug overdose and all children younger than age 2. In the death of someone who is developmentally challenged the coroner's office examines the body to check for signs of physical trauma and reviews the medical history. The office also conducts laboratory tests in rape cases and ballistics testing on firearms used in crimes.

The office stays busy. For example, police agencies submitted 602 guns to the ballistics division in 2004. Last year the office investigated 122 suicides and 93 homicides.

At the meeting in Avondale, Owens describes a ballistics test he performed on a .44 Magnum.

"My first reaction was, 'How could anyone say that they didn't hear this?' " he said. "The kickback on it was incredible."

As the discussion continued, the relatives of homicide victims complained that police officials, prosecutors and coroner employees often were anything but sensitive. Emotionally charged, Walker said she received contradictory reports about her son's death from homicide detectives and the coroner's office (before Owens took office). She expressed frustration in trying to get a conclusive explanation of what happened the night he was killed.

"I buried him without knowing how he was killed," she tearfully recounted. "I was told that he was shot in the back and then I read a report saying something else."

Owens listened intently and handed her his business card.

"I can't tell you who killed your son, but I can give you closure," he said. "Make sure you call me."

Practicing prevention
In November 2004, Owens became the first African American elected coroner in Hamilton County by defeating incumbent Dr. Carl Parrott. Parrott's term was beset with controversial cases involving unauthorized photographs of corpses and allegations of removing and keeping brains without consent from families of the deceased (see "Dead to Rites," issue of Sept. 22-28, 2004).

Running as a Democrat, Owens campaigned on the slogan, "Dignity in Life, Dignity in Death, " promising to restore accessibility and accountability. Since taking office, he's forged partnerships with community service groups, built relationships across party lines and de-politicized the coroner's office.

Perhaps that's not surprising. After all, the 57-year old endocrinologist was named in a 1995 Cincinnati Magazine poll as one of the most trustworthy people in the city.

Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters, a Republican, expresses a high level of confidence in Owens.

"My relationship with Dr. Owens is very warm," he says. "We worked together on the board of trustees at UC. He is the consummate professional, and I believe that he will excel in this role."

Owens has taken a somewhat unorthodox approach to the operation of the coroner's office, actively looking for ways to help reduce the number of unnecessary fatalities. Between 2000 and 2004 the number of homicides in the city of Cincinnati nearly doubled, rising from 35 to 68, according to the coroner's office. Looking to combat this trend, Owens is using his position to speak to the community at large, particularly the youth, about the need for making healthier lifestyle choices, starting with getting a good education.

One of the community partnerships Owens has forged is with the Neighborhood Support Center (NSC). Founded in 2003, the nonprofit center acts as advocate for safer neighborhoods and a clearinghouse for data ranging from crime rates to property values.

Since February, Owens and Tom Jones — NSC director and a former Republican candidate for city council — have taken anti-gun and anti-violence messages to the public through speaking engagements and appearances on radio talk shows.

"Our role in the coroner's office is to raise public awareness," Owens said in an interview on Lincoln Ware's show on WDBZ. "This is the new coroner's office. We want to have more of a public health impact. We want to be able to take this information back to the youth and say, 'Yes, you may not want to be a criminal or live a life of crime but if you drop out of school, involve yourself in violence and drugs, you have a good chance of coming to see me in the coroner's office.' "

Also appearing with Owens and Jones on the talk radio circuit is former County Prosecutor Mike Allen, another Republican. Allen is enthusiastic about working with Owens.

"He's definitely a people person," he says. "I think he's going to be a great coroner. His obvious strength, which he has many, is his ability to reach out to people."

Since taking office in January, Owens has attended 23 engagements around the city, promoting his stance on crime reduction. He recently took his message to a crowd of teens at the Stop the Violence Youth Summit and luncheon in Roselawn. The boisterous crowd grew silent as he described the surging number of gunshot deaths and gave details about a few of the more egregious cases.

"I've pulled three, four, five, seven, 12, 19 bullets out of one body," he said.

Owens is no stranger to the issues facing youth growing up in precarious economic conditions. He acknowledges his unprivileged background growing up in the West End.

"I think just because you're poor, it doesn't mean that you're destined to be a criminal or that your life is over," he says. "The bridge from here to where you're going is education."

Vice Mayor Alicia Reece says it's this common connection that makes Owens ideal for reaching disadvantaged youth.

"We need to recognize that we are getting someone who's from the community and understands the complexities of the community, someone who is a real role model," she says. "A young person in this room can look at him and say, 'This could be me.' "

To anyone familiar with Owens' career, expanding the work of the coroner's office to include a public education role is no surprise. His extensive civic resume includes serving as former president of the University of Cincinnati Board of Trustees and chair of the Cincinnati Board of Health.

"I've gotten to know O'dell Owens during my time here," says UC President Nancy Zimpher. "He is an intriguing mix of physician, civic leader and now elected official. I've heard that when he completed his tenure on the UC Board of Trustees he said he would like his epitaph to read: 'He made a difference.' He strikes me as the kind of guy who definitely does."

Owens says he views the transition from renowned fertility specialist — he achieved the city's first conception and delivery from a frozen embryo — to coroner as seamless, a new effort in his mission to be of service to the public. After his return in 1982 from a fellowship in endocrinology at Harvard University, he established the first division of reproductive endocrinology at UC Medical Center.

"Yes, I have been fortunate to help create life in a test tube, but I understand death is a part of life," he says. "I'm striving for my office to share the lessons of death that can help people live a better life."

'I'm definitely going'
Most of the 42 employees in the coroner's office worked under the previous administration. Instead of replacing the staff, Owens sought to establish camaraderie and respect after the heated election.

"The argument of whether one should be a pathologist or not a pathologist in this job has been decided by the people of Hamilton County who have that right — the voters," he says. "I expect every individual to respect the office of the coroner, and as far as individual respect I will earn that."

Owens' approach has worked, according to Terry Daly, communications officer for the coroner's office. Owens quickly overcame doubts that some staff had during the political campaign.

"After hearing Dr. Owens talk the very first day he came in about some of the things that he wanted to do, I basically said to him, 'If this is what you really want to do, I'm with you,' " Daly says. "I found out that he wasn't the 'evil empire' I was led to believe."

"The coroner's office is such a specialized office that you simply can't play politics," Owens says. "I've never been supportive of that. How can you walk in and tell somebody goodbye because they're of the other (political) party?"

In an effort to improve efficiency, Owens established a cross-training program that requires administrative employees to learn the daily operations of each department. He also plans to convert administrative functions to a paperless mode to enable staff to retrieve records and to improve data management.

"We've adopted the mantra, 'Technology, Science and Compassion: Serve the Community,' " Owens says. "One must associate compassion with the coroner's office."

Owens describes the procedure in investigating a crime scene.

"The police will call the coroner's office," he says. "If it's a homicide, then we'll send out an investigator and a forensic pathologist. No one is allowed to touch the body until the investigator arrives. The crime scene belongs to the police. The body is the coroner's."

Owens has implemented a policy that he is to be notified of every shooting and will be on the scene of shootings involving police officers.

"If it is a police shooting, I'm definitely going, because I want to make sure that whatever evidence we have or whatever is there is the real deal," he says.

The coroner's investigative unit consists of several retired police officers, a level of expertise that isn't found in all coroner's offices in Ohio.

"So many investigations done in other counties are by either the coroner or the deputy coroner, and the deputy coroner is most often a physician," Owens says. "We have the luxury of having fully trained people."

Owens is supportive of county pathologists receiving continuing training. He was recently elected to the advisory board of the International Association of Coroners.

Innovation has already resulted in more money for the coroner's budget. For a fee, Hamilton County pathologists now conduct autopsies for smaller surrounding counties in Ohio and southwest Indiana.

Owens says county commissioners authorized the plan because it demonstrated the office's ability to generate funds internally. He says the money will pay salaries for additional staff and has already made possible the hiring of an experienced DNA specialist. The office is also conducting a nationwide search for an experienced ballistics specialist.

"I was very impressed with his entrepreneurial approach to the office," says County Commissioner Phil Heimlich. "He's committed to the professionalism of the office without it being at the taxpayers' expense."

Owens is concerned about a backlog of cases due to understaffing. The two serologists on staff have been able to turn around 30 to 40 cases out of the average 50 to 70 received monthly.

"CSI has made DNA evidence so popular everyone expects it," he says. "Part of the problem is that, if juries now don't see forensics, they think the person is innocent. The jury pool is tainted in a sense. They've been so sensitized by TV they expect you'll be able to demonstrate forensics (in each case), and that's not true."

DNA evidence isn't used to prosecute the majority of criminal cases, but DNA samples can often be helpful. Last year county serologists matched samples of a convicted serial rapist to six additional unsolved rapes.

"We had a sample of his DNA, put it in the computer and it kicked out six matches of unsolved cases," Owens says. "All of a sudden now you're able to take a guy and tie him to six other cases. Knowing that, he'll probably never get out of jail."

Battling the old ways
Even with new policies intended to build more transparency into the operation of the coroner's office, certain elements of pathologists' jobs should remain secret, according to Dr. Gary Utz, chief deputy coroner and director of the pathology department.

"Do you really want to help someone be a better murderer? I don't think so," he says. "But on some level, I am asking the public to trust me. I don't have any secrets here. The ways that I make my interpretations are pretty open."

The team of county forensic pathologists performs an average of 1,000 to 1,100 autopsies a year, Daly says. Owens performs none of them personally.

Ohio law doesn't require coroners to perform autopsies, just as the elected county prosecutor isn't required to try cases. The law requires the coroner to be a physician and requires autopsies to be performed by forensic pathologists.

Utz acknowledges there are special occurrences that can hinder the detection of true causes of death and says these aspects of the autopsy shouldn't be disclosed. He recounts an anonymous phone call he received from someone claiming to be a medical student, asking how bloody a person would be if shot or stabbed in a specific place on the body.

"I immediately said, 'Can you give me your name and number and I'll call you back?' " Utz says. "I never heard from him again."

Utz supports Owens' efforts to change the coroner's office.

"I think he wants to take our office to the next level, and I think part of that is battling the way that we've always done things in Hamilton County," Utz says. "Having him here has really increased our scrutiny."

Utz says Owens' 29-year experience as an endocrinologist, bringing a different perspective to the operation, has made the department analyze its work in greater detail. Like Owens, he recognizes the need for the public to associate compassion with the coroner's office.

"There's a lot more humanity involved with this and a lot less science," Utz says.

'Now you know'
In a conference room adjoining Owens' office, he and Charlene Walker finally meet to read her son's autopsy report.

"He graduated from Woodward," says Walker, handing Owens a copy of a December 2004 Cincinnati Enquirer article about her son.

Owens reads the story.

"I'll have this laminated for you," he says.

He disappears for a moment into the office of his administrative assistant, Michelle Griffin. Returning, he sits at the conference table, autopsy folder in hand. He begins explaining the details of the coroner's procedure in investigating a crime scene. Walker looks to the ground as Owens begins reading through the report on her son.

"Our detective and pathologist got to his residence at 5:20 in the morning," he says. "Did that happen?"

Walker nods.

According to the report, witnesses heard a shot around 1 or 1:30 a.m. but thought nothing of it. On a cool, rainy September morning, Lackey was killed by a single bullet hole entering the left side of his chest. It traveled through his chest cavity, perforated his heart and lungs and lodged in his right side.

He was found about 2:15 a.m., lying face down behind his vehicle, still clutching his keys. He had $83 and a cell phone on his person.

Walker tells Owens that her son's apartment had been previously broken into. He was working extra hours, saving money and planning to purchase his first home. Two weeks after Walker buried him, she received a letter from a bank — her son had been pre-approved for a home loan.

Owens placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.

"I hope this helps you," he says. "At least you now know."

After sitting for a moment in silence, Walker manages a weak smile. Through tears, she thanks Owens for his time and leaves. ©

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