Duties of dealing with the dead: DeKalb county coroner up for reelection, unopposed since 1984

By Linze Griebenow

Dealing with dead bodies is not typically part of the job description in most occupations. However, DeKalb County coroner Dennis Miller has been dealing with them for the last 32 years.

Deaths in Dekalb County that are sudden with an unknown cause, violent or occur in police custody are processed by the county coroner. Miller has been in the Dekalb County coroner’s office for 32 years, including the five years he spent as deputy coroner. Miller will be up for re-election on March 20, 2012 and since taking office in 1984, has run unopposed and won in all subsequent elections.

With a degree in business administration, Miller and his wife owned and operated a retail business prior to his election to the coroner position. During this time, Miller also served as a volunteer at the DeKalb Fire Department, which was what initially sparked his interest in becoming involved in death investigations and ultimately led him to run for coroner, Miller said.

According to eligibility requirements for the Office of the Coroner, any potential candidate must be at least 18 years of age (though a high school diploma is not necessary). The candidate must also be a U.S. citizen, a registered voter and resident of the county for at least 30 days and have met signature and petition requirements. There is also an optional loyalty oath.

In Illinois, coroners have the authority to act as and be entitled to the same power as sheriff, if there is none, or if the coroner feels the sheriff is prejudiced. Coroners also act as conservator of the peace, fix compensation rates of deputy coroners and other employees, decide which deaths to investigate, summon witnesses and subpoenas, commit any witness unwilling to participate to the county jail and create budgets for supplies and in-service training. In some cases, resisting or violating the coroner’s jurisdiction may result in the issue of a Class A misdemeanor.

Also, any police officer, funeral director or person that fails to promptly notify the coroner or handles the body without the coroner’s permission, is subject to a misdemeanor.

“This is important because I only use board-certified pathologists for autopsies,” Miller said. If anyone but an absolute certified professional comes into the wrong kind of contact with a body during an investigation, a case could be completely compromised, Miller said.

For county coroner, one must also successfully complete the Illinois Law Enforcement Training Standards Board Coroners Training Program within six months of applying for the program, as well as annually attend at least 24 hours of accredited continued education for coroners. This training includes 40 hours over 5 days and covers a basic introduction to death scene investigation, toxicology and more.

The basic training program is required once within the first 6 to 7 months of taking office. Miller has been in office over 30 years and completes the training annually to keep updated on the latest methods and discussion.

“I helped to develop and write the training program they use and I’m part of a group of people working to make it a law,” Miller said.

Coroners also reserve the right to summon a jury from the jury commission to aid in an inquest into the cause of death of an individual if it is questionable or not immediately obvious, though Miller feels that coroner’s inquest system should also consider revamping.

“I felt it was an antiquated system, and it is,” Miller said. “In today’s society, too many people watch too many bogus shows on TV like CSI. That’s not the purpose of an inquest.”

Coroner’s inquests are investigations to determine a cause of death if there is a death that is sudden and has no immediate cause, occurred in prison or was violent or suspicious.

Most counties in Illinois opt to appoint coroners or a medical examiner by elections, not resumes.

“As far as the position being an elected one, I don’t really feel that’s right,” Miller said. “It shouldn’t be done that way.”

In the past, such close relationships with coroners or medical examiners and state and county officials compromised investigations and created national scandals, such as the Henry Glover case discovered in January.

In the Glover case, the New Orleans Police Department was convicted of shooting Glover, burning his body and proceeding to cover up the event. Orleans Parish Coroner Frank Minyard and his pathologists overlooked many important details and performed incomplete autopsies followed by miscategorized diagnoses. However, that’s not a concern for Dekalb County, Miller said.

“You have to be able to cut friendships out for the job,” Miller said. “We’ve had to sit down and talk about it. Not all counties in Illinois can say they’ve done that.”

Donald Henderson Jr., attorney and director of the Students’ Legal Assistance, agrees the predisposition to cover up or compromise investigations exists but is rare.

“What I would be even more worried about is the relationship between the state’s attorney and the sheriff and what that does for a coroner,” Henderson said. “Aren’t they on the same side of the street? The answer is yes. It’s the legal system’s responsibility to perform checks and balances, which should ferret out most incompetence and bias. I mean, does [corruption] happen? Yes, but I think it’s rare; there is just too much at stake.”