News: Dead to Rites

Hamilton County Coroner's race focuses on treatment of the deceased

Sep 22, 2004 at 2:06 pm
Tony Cook

Saying the Republican incumbent has failed to treat the dead with respect, Dr. O'dell Owens could be the best hope the Democrats have had for winning the coroner's office in many years.

Problems in the Hamilton County Coroner's office are nothing less than shocking, according to an expert witness in a lawsuit in federal court.

Dr. Cyril Wecht, the coroner in Allegheny County, Penn., testified that the number of violations he found in the Hamilton County Coroner's facilities, as well as the policies and procedures in handling the remains of the deceased, "shocks the conscience of the forensic medical community."

Wecht gave an affidavit in a lawsuit against the county over an art photography project that used cadavers in the county morgue (see "Crimes of the Art ," issue of Dec. 26, 2002-Jan. 1, 2003).

"In my 42 years of experience, I have never seen such disregard for the remains of deceased persons entrusted to a coroner's office's care," Wecht testified.

The morgue photo incident and other scandals point to the need for a new coroner, according to Dr. O'dell Owens, Democratic candidate for the office.

"My slogan for the campaign is 'Dignity in life, dignity in death,' and that's based around the fact that the coroner did not show the proper dignity to the deceased," he says. "That certainly is the main issue in this race."

'He didn't know'
An internationally renowned fertility specialist, Owens says Democratic Party leaders approached him about running against the Republican incumbent, Dr. Carl L. Parrott.

"My first response? I had no interest in being the coroner," he says. "I'm a reproductive endocrinologist. I create life. After I thought about it, yes, I create life, but my whole historical perspective has been about the quality of life that people live."

In 2001, photographer Thomas Condon took photos of several corpses — adorned by sheet music, a key and other props — without receiving permission from their families. He and Dr. Jonathan Tobias, a former assistant coroner, were charged with gross abuse of a corpse. Tobias' subsequent conviction was overturned; Condon served more than a year in prison.

During their trial, Mark Mezibov, Tobias' attorney, argued that Parrott knew of the photos and had permission from the county prosecutor, an allegation both Parrott and the prosecutor deny. Several class action lawsuits against the county are pending.

"(Parrott's) position is that he didn't know that this was happening, which tells me that he wasn't running his own ship," Owens says.

But Owens doesn't lay his hopes for election solely on criticism of the incumbent. He says the coroner's office provides an opportunity for advocacy in reducing the growing violence in the community. He proposes an initiative to educate children about the demographics of homicide victims.

"I would go to schools and tell our young people that, hey, if you deal in drugs, drop out of school and get involved in violence, you're coming to my house," Owens says. "I would go out and say that the higher the graduation rate, the lower the homicide rate, and it would be true."

That kind of program holds no interest for Parrott. The coroner's office is a criminal justice agency that offers fair, honest and objective findings in the deaths of citizens, he says.

"We are not advocates, except for the truth of our conclusions," he says.

'It's about the living'
Parrott rejects the stinging assessment of his office contained in Wecht's affidavit. He says Wecht didn't interview him or his employees.

"He's mistaken," Parrott says. "It's invalid and incorrect. I don't think that his opinion is valid, based on a cursory inspection."

The coroner's office has accreditation from several medical organizations and every doctor on the staff is a certified forensic specialist with the American Board of Pathology and Forensic Pathology, Parrott says.

"Many offices around the country cannot make that claim," he says.

Parrott says he has improved security policies and procedures. But the morgue photo case wasn't the only scandal to mar his tenure. A body switch in 2000 led to another lawsuit. A coroner's employee inadvertently switched two bodies, one going to a funeral home and one to a crematorium.

This was an isolated incident, Parrott says.

"The employee involved was one of the best and made a mistake," he says. "We took ownership of this to eliminate the possibility of it ever occurring again. This was a deviation from policy, and he was disciplined."

The employee still works for the coroner. Employees at the funeral home and crematorium also failed to catch the fact that they were handling the wrong bodies, Parrott says. As a result of the incident, all corpses in the morgue now have bar codes to prevent future mix-ups, he says.

Parrott defends his nine-year tenure. He points to his 20-plus years in forensic science and the office's accreditation by the National Association of Medical Examiners. Prior to his appointment in 1995, the accreditation had lapsed, according to Parrott.

But Owens reflects on the history of controversy dating back to the previous coroner, Dr. Frank Cleveland, who retired in 1994 amid reports that 601 corneas had been removed from corpses without the permission of their families.

Republican Party control of the office has led to a culture that requires a change in direction, Owens says.

"(Parrott) has grown up in a culture of not respecting the families of the dead," Owens says. "It's really about the living more than it is about the dead when you're dealing with death. Every culture may not have a ceremony around birth but every culture — no matter how primitive — has a ceremony around death. What does that tell you? There's a respect around death. For me, a society that allows for erosion of that respect for the deceased is a society that's going to allow it among the living." ©