Death of longtime coroner highlights national debate
Josh Pounders was a toddler when his father was first elected as DeSoto County’s coroner.
It was a job that Jeff Pounders held for 34 years until he died.
Now his oldest son has been appointed to fill the reminder of his father’s four-year term.
“One of my first memories as a child was when I was 3 years old and we were standing on the courthouse lawn the night my dad first got elected,” Pounders recalled.
As DeSoto County looks to elect a new coroner, debate continues around the country about whether coroners should continue to document deaths or turn that duty over to more qualified medical examiners.
Although the two positions are often used interchangeably, they are different. A medical examiner is a doctor who performs autopsies in suspicious deaths. A coroner is an elected or appointed official who is not required to have a medical background.
When his father died a week before Christmas at 63, Pounders said he didn’t hesitate when the DeSoto County Board of Supervisors asked him to serve as the interim coroner until an election is held in November.
On a recent cold and rainy day, Pounders was busy in the coroner’s office that is reached by climbing a narrow flight of stairs in the back of Butterflies Florist on U.S. 51 in Hernando.
He said he had just returned from the state crime lab near Jackson where he watched several autopsies.
“Since being appointed on Jan. 1, I’ve worked close to 100 cases,” Pounders said. “I’m doing training with the state crime lab and learning this job.”
It is a job that his father held for 34 years as one of the longest-serving coroners in Mississippi.
Some in the field have argued that coroners who are elected or appointed and are required to have only a high school diploma with no medical training should be replaced with medical examiners who are usually doctors and who are trained in forensic science.
Across the state line in Tennessee, Shelby County has a medical examiner who conducts death investigations and autopsies.
But in Mississippi, DeSoto County, like the other 81 counties in the state, elect a coroner to conduct death investigations while autopsies are sent to the state Medical Examiners Office.
Coroner systems date back to the 9th or 10th century in England. “Crowners,” as coroners were called, originally alerted the king of deaths so he could extract taxes one last time.
In the United States, some states have coroners, some medical examiners and some a mixture of both systems, said Gary Watts, president-elect of the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners.
Watts, who is also the coroner in Richland County, South Carolina, said the debate about coroners vs. medical examiners has been ongoing for decades.
“In South Carolina, I like to say we have coroners who range from Yale to jail. I mean, not only in terms of their experience, but also their offices and budgets,” Watts said.
He said there are pros and cons for both. .
“I’m not advocating only coroners is the way to go. I’m advocating for professionally trained death investigators regardless of what kind of office they work under,” Watts said.
A 2009 report from the nonprofit National Academy of Sciences that recommended states eliminate the coroner system and hire forensic pathologists as medical examinersre-ignited the debate, Watts said.
Dr. Marcella Fierro, the former chief medical examiner in Virginia, served on the NAS panel that crafted the report.
“The purpose of the panel was to assess the state of forensic sciences throughout the nation and to see what could be done to improve the quantity and quality of forensic sciences examinations,” Fierro said.
Fierro, who served as Virginia’s chief medical examiner for 14 years until she retired in 2008, said since the NAS report, some states have combined several counties that had coroner systems and hired forensic pathologists.
“Its general conclusion was the death investigation ought to be carried out by a medical examiner system,” Fierro said. “The medical examiner systems brought to death investigations a greater degree of competency in assessing cause and manner of death.”
She added that, “Cause and manner of death are important for public health to know why people have died and secondly for the criminal justice system.
“It was important that those people who died sudden, unexpected or violent deaths have a very careful assessment by someone who is medically trained. Like in a homicide, was it self-defense or a flat-out ugly homicide? Was it a suicide versus a homicide? All these require a lot of experience, a lot of training in medicine. You cannot learn this in a 40-hour week.”
In Mississippi, coroners are required to complete a 40-hour training seminar by the State Medical Examiner’s office and also complete additional training several times a year.
The average salary for coroners can range from $8,000 to $140,000, but it depends on experience and varies in each state, Watts said.
For medical examiners, the pay can range from $175,000 to $300,000, he said.
Watts added that the switch for states to hire forensic pathologist to serve as medical examiners would be expensive.
“At this point in time, to have a forensic pathologist to be a medical examiner in every jurisdiction is not feasibly possible because of costs and also because there is simply just not enough of them to go around,” Watts said. “There is a shortage in this field, so I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”
Josh Pounders doesn’t disagree that coroners should have some medical background or training.
Like his father, Pounders, 37, is a registered nurse. Also like his father, both worked at Baptist Memorial Hospital DeSoto in Southaven.
“Across the state there are coroners that come from all walks of life and are passionate and do a great job,” he said. “There are coroners that don’t have a medical background, but if you have a medical background, you can save your county so much by not having to do autopsies on every death because an autopsy costs the county $2,000.”
Pounders said he plans to run for coroner in the fall election.
“I guess like any son you always have a desire to follow in your father’s footsteps and it just so happens that my father was the coroner,” Pounders said. “If elected, I would be proud to do the job that my father loved and did so well.”