2019 Coroner's Annual Report

Benton County

Office of the Coroner

2019

 Annual Report


Coroner Staff

William Leach, D-ABMDI, Coroner

Dennis Morris, Chief Deputy Coroner

Nicole Lee, Deputy Coroner

Ashleigh Newell, Deputy Coroner

Jessica Davenport, Intern

 

Message to the Board of Commissioners

and

Citizens of Benton County

 

The Benton County Coroner's Office jurisdiction, as governed by specific Washington State statutes, covers all of Benton County, including the Hanford Site, with a population of over 202,000 residents and an area of approximately 1760 square miles. The Coroner’s Office investigates sudden, violent, unexpected, and suspicious deaths that occur in Benton County. The Office of the Coroner certifies deaths after investigation and postmortem examination and issues the death certificate as required by law. Complete findings of the death investigation are distributed to families and law enforcement agencies as appropriate.

The main duties of the Office of the Coroner are to determine the cause and manner of death and certify deaths that are reported to the coroner. The cause of death is the disease process or injury that resulted in death. There are thousands of diseases and injuries that may result in death. The manner of death is a classification in which a determination is made regarding whether the death resulted from natural causes, homicide, suicide, or an accident; on occasion the manner of death is classified as undetermined.

Information collected during the investigation helps clarify the circumstances, such as the sequence of events prior to death, any known illnesses of the deceased, and prior history of similar conditions not resulting in death. Evidence collected during an investigation and/or postmortem examination may help lead to the arrest or successful conviction of a suspect in a homicide case and can also provide information to other agencies to help develop programs to fight drug overdoses and in suicide prevention. Because deaths occur around the clock, coroner staff is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year.

With the skill and experience of the coroner investigators and board-certified forensic pathologists, we believe the quality of death investigations in Benton County are among the best in the State. The death investigation reports filed by the investigators are thorough and supply comprehensive information to the Coroner, forensic pathologists, families and others who may have an interest in the death investigation. The Coroner and investigative staff also extend their duties to the living by answering questions and addressing concerns regarding deaths within the county. Coroner investigators frequently make personal contact with family members of a deceased and assist them by providing appropriate answers regarding the circumstances of the death. Investigators are supplied with a pamphlet for distribution to families that contains information and provides answers to common questions and facts about autopsies, and provides information pertaining to resources in the area, including grief counseling, law enforcement contact information, funeral home contact information and much more.

Over the past several years our office contributed significant input toward the implementation of a web-based death investigation report system. After providing assistance to Occupational Research and Assessment, Inc. of Big Rapids, Michigan, the Medicolegal Death Investigation Log or, MDI Log, was adopted by this office in January 2018. MDI Log is a comprehensive investigative report/database system that enables the Coroner to review death scene investigation information from a secure Internet site any time of the day. MDI Log enables Coroner Investigators to submit death scene investigation reports via the Internet in an efficient manner. MDI Log has evolved to become a valuable tool for our office, and it is now available to coroner and medical examiner offices across the country.

Starting in January 2019 the Benton County Coroner’s Office has made some operational changes and has also partnered with other agencies to share information to better understand statewide death trends.

The Benton County Coroner’s Office has partnered with the Washington State Department of Health and is sharing case information with the DOH Washington Violent Death Reporting System for the purpose of collecting data that helps public health and law enforcement officials understand the extent, cause and circumstances of violent deaths. The information will be used to develop, guide and evaluate violence prevention strategies throughout Washington.

The Benton County Coroner’s Office has also partnered with the King County Medical Examiner’s Office by sharing case information with them for the purpose of tracking and trending drug overdose deaths across Washington.

In June 2019 the Benton County Coroner’s Office entered into an agreement with the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office allowing them to provide autopsy services to Benton County, on an as needed bases, when the coroner’s contracted forensic pathologist is not available. This agreement will continue through 2020 and will provide some savings in the overall autopsy costs to Benton County.

The Benton County Coroner’s Office has participated in providing educational opportunities to the community by participating in the Kennewick School District’s Public Education program by conducting classes at the Coroner’s Office on forensic death investigation and coroner related activities. The coroner’s office also participates in the Every 15 Minutes program, and conducts classroom presentations for local schools throughout the year.  

We extend our sincere gratitude to the Benton County Board of Commissioners for their support of the Benton County Coroner's Office and the services we provide to the citizens of the Benton County.

 

 

The Future

In 2020 the Benton County Coroner’s Office will continue developing a policy and procedure manual which recognizes and follows all applicable laws, codes and best practices.  Having a current and workable policy manual in place is important to the professional operation of the coroner’s office and is also a requirement for accreditation through the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners; the coroner’s office will begin the accreditation process in 2020.

In 2019 two members of the coroner’s investigative staff began the process of preparing to be tested and certified as Registered Medicolegal Death Investigators through the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators; in 2020 both investigators will test for this certification. Also, in 2020, another investigator will begin the process of preparing to be tested and certified as Registered Medicolegal Death Investigators, with testing occurring in late 2020 or early 2021.

Technology updates to the coroner’s office will also be evaluated in 2020, with plans to expand our office classroom presentation capabilities and our community educational outreach. The coroner’s office will be working in conjunction with the Benton-Franklin Health Department in efforts to bring about a reduction in infant deaths caused by unsafe sleeping practices.

 Cause and Manner of Deaths

In 2019 the Benton County Coroner’s Office conducted 519 death investigations, these include natural deaths, suicides, accidents and homicides; this is an increase of over 5.5% from 2018. In approximately 300 of these deaths an investigator responded to the location of the death to conduct an on-scene investigation. The Benton County Coroner’s Office also reviewed and tracked 833 Hospice deaths; an increase of over 35% from 2018.



There were 56 Accidental deaths investigated by the Benton County Coroner’s office in 2019, a decrease of 10 from 2018. Deaths from accidents are as follows:

9          Motor vehicle related deaths, which include drivers, passengers and pedestrians

8          Fall related deaths, which include falls from buildings, ladders, standing, etc.

4          Smoke/carbon monoxide inhalation

2          Drowning

7          Other

26        Drug/alcohol related accidental deaths


There were 26 Accidental Drug Deaths investigated by the Benton County Coroner’s office in 2019. Deaths from drugs are as follows:

            12        Methamphetamine

            8          Fentanyl

            3          Mixed Drugs

            1          Heroin Mixed

            1          Opiates

            1          Alcohol




There were 38 Suicide deaths investigated by the Benton County Coroner’s office in 2019, an increase 5 from 2018. Deaths from suicide are as follows:

            23        Firearm

11        Hanging

3          Drugs

1          Drowning

 

There were 6 Homicide deaths investigated by the Benton County Coroner’s office in 2019, a decrease of 3 from 2018. Deaths from homicides are as follows:

            5          Firearm used

            1          Sharp instrument used (Oregon State ME assumed jurisdiction)

 

There were 3 Undetermined deaths investigated by the Benton County Coroner’s office in 2019, no change from 2018. Undetermined deaths are as follows:

1                    Missing person from August 2016, declared deceased by court order

 

2                    Infant deaths, co-sleeping, but no clear indications of manner of death

 

There were 2 found bones cases investigated by the Benton County Coroner’s office in 2019, these were determined to be non-human.

There are 2 deaths awaiting the finalization of the autopsy reports to determine the cause and manner of death.

 

Autopsies

Autopsies are typically conducted when it is believed the death was due to the violent act of another; where the deceased is believed to be in good health and there is no medical history to reference or to assist in the determination of the cause and manner of death; when the death is believed to have been caused by fire or other unexplained accident; when the deceased is a child, unless there is a substantial amount of previous medical history to explain why the death occurred; when the circumstances of the death are suspicious or otherwise unexplainable.

In 2019 there were 42 full autopsies and no partial autopsies conducted by the Benton County Coroner’s Office, an increase of 11 autopsies from the previous year; this increase is partially due to an increased number of autopsies conducted when the death is suspected to be due to a drug overdose.

Historically autopsies for suspected drug overdose deaths have not been done if there were obvious signs of drug use or a history of known drug use by the decedent. However, with both Federal and Local efforts to prosecute the suppliers of the drugs, autopsies are needed to provide solid medical evidence that a drug overdose and not a medical condition caused the death.

 

Morgue Use

There are several situations when a deceased will be transported to the Benton County Morgue; for full autopsy, detailed external examination, awaiting a next-of-kin notification, identification purposes, etc. In 2019 it is estimated there were approximately 75 bodies transported to the Benton County Morgue by the coroner’s office staff. Of these 42 were for the purpose of conducting an autopsy of which 4 were transported to the Snohomish County ME’s Office for autopsy; 15 for detailed examination; 12 to await notification of next-of-kin or funeral home designation; and the remaining awaiting further investigation to determine the need for an autopsy.   

 

Toxicology Testing

There are several circumstances when toxicology testing will be conducted on a deceased. When a death occurs from a motor vehicle accident, whether a driver, passenger or a pedestrian die; a suspected drug or alcohol overdose; suicides by any means; other deaths as needed.

In 2019 the Benton county Coroner’s office submitted 120 samples for toxicology testing, with 69 samples being submitted to the WSP toxicology lab and 51 submitted to the National Medical Services lab.

Prior to January 2019 the coroner’s office was utilizing the Washington State Patrol toxicology lab for nearly all toxicology testing needed by the office. Due to the backlog at the WSP toxicology lab this was causing delays of up to eight months to complete some death certificates and it was also affecting criminal investigations. Beginning in January 2019 the coroner’s office started using a private toxicology lab for nearly all toxicology testing which reduced the time required for final certification of death certificates by the Benton County Coroner’s Office to around three weeks in most cases. Since April 2019, with a reduced backlog at the WSP toxicology lab, the coroner’s office is using a private lab for cases when a delay in toxicology results might hinder criminal investigations and is using the WSP toxicology lab for non-priority cases when the cause and manner of death has already been determined, but a toxicology test is still desired, i.e., motor vehicle related deaths, suicides, etc.

 

Organ and Tissue Donation Referrals

Organ and tissue donations are very important to the citizens of Benton County, Washington State and nationwide. When the Benton County Coroner’s Office begin using MDILog as its reporting system we had the option to also share some decedent information with organ donation organizations to expedite the process of  donations. While the primary donation referrals this office is involved in is cornea, bone and tissue donations we are often contacted by hospitals and organ donation organizations to verify and approve the process of organ donations from persons who are currently hospitalized due to injuries or illnesses but are still considered possible donors. In 2019 the Benton County Coroner’s Office was responsible for 165 referrals to organ donation organizations, with 47 resulting in an actual donation.  In 2018 there were 49 referrals to organ donation organizations, with 13 resulting in an actual donation.

Unclaimed Bodies/Cremated Remains

The Benton County Coroner’s Office has the cremated remains of 38 persons stored at the coroner’s office; these cremated remains date back several years. In 2019 the coroner’s office was presented with the cremated remains of 3 additional persons as unclaimed, however using available resources, the families of 2 of them were found and the remains were reunited with their family.  Of the remaining cremated remains, the coroner’s office continues to maintain a current list of the names on the Coroner Web Page and is also working with Washington Veterans Cemetery to determine the veteran’s status of the remaining cremated remains. As of December 2019, two of the remains stored at the coroner’s office have been identified as veterans and are awaiting finalization of eligibility for placement at the Washington Veterans Cemetery. The coroner’s office continues to work with the Washington Veterans Cemetery and to also seek out families of the remaining cremated remains so they can be placed in a proper, dignified final resting place.

 Other

In 2019 there were no unidentified bodies in Benton County and no exhumations conducted by the coroner’s office.


       
       
       

       
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