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Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2008 08:13 am

Race to the death

Coroner candidates disagree over who should perform inquests and autopsies

Susan Boone

The coroner's job is to deal with dead bodies, but the campaign for this office is turning into a lively contest. On one side is incumbent Susan Boone, with 30 years of experience in the office; on the other is Angela "Aby" Phoenix — a registered nurse who has spent the past 16 years working in St. John's Hospital's emergency department.

The contest pits the veteran Boone — a high school graduate with decades of on-the-job training — against political neophyte Phoenix, who argues that her bachelor's degree in nursing and training as a trauma nurse, sexual assault examiner, psychiatric nurse and forensic nurse, would bring a higher level of professionalism to the coroner's office.

Boone, age 60, says her opponent's resume is irrelevant. "It's a law enforcement office; it's not a medical office," she says. "You don't have to have any kind of a degree in nursing or medical to be in this office."

Phoenix, age 45, acknowledges that fact, but says she was appalled when she first learned that almost anyone could run for the post of coroner.

"I couldn't believe it. Words can't describe what I thought when I found that out," Phoenix says. "I thought: How can you have a coroner with no medical background?"

Boone, a Republican, joined the coroner's office in the 1970s after her pursuit of a commercial art degree didn't work out. She says her mother, who worked for the county treasurer's office, suggested that she apply for a job with then-coroner Norman Richter, who had a part-time deputy but had to handle all office tasks himself.

"I auditioned for the job for about 10 days basically with two other people, so there were three of us vying for the job," Boone recalls. She won out, and took on the triple title of chief deputy coroner, court reporter, and secretary. When Richter retired in 1996, Boone was elected coroner. She has since taken law enforcement courses at Lincoln Land Community College and completed several week-long courses in medico-legal death investigation at Saint Louis University, as well as numerous other seminars.

Angela “Aby” Phoenix

Phoenix, who has so little political experience that she had never even displayed a yard sign until she got a batch of lavender placards with her name on them, says she was motivated to seek the office after becoming certified as a forensics nurse about a year ago. The course included working with law enforcement officers and firefighters, and Phoenix says several of these first responders suggested that she should run for coroner.

"When I started hearing about all the things going on and how people were being treated, I just felt like I had to step up and do this," she says. "It felt like it had been going on long enough."

Since launching her campaign — and driving around with an "Aby Phoenix for coroner" sign on the side of her car — she says she has heard many complaints about the way Boone handles her duties as coroner.

One of those complaints involves the jury selection for death inquests. Coroners were allowed to pull jurors from their circle of friends and acquaintances until the mid-1980s, when state law mandated that coroners draw six jurors from the general pool randomly generated by the county jury commission. Jeff Lair, president of the Illinois Coroners and Medical Examiners Association and coroner of Morgan County since 1984, says he and the coroner for St. Clair County advocated for this law.

"Coroners had their own people, and it was not impartial, it was kind of a rubber stamp," Lair says. "I wanted an impartial jury."

In January 2007, the law changed again to make inquests optional, but Boone says she continues to hold them because she prefers to have a jury decide on the manner of death to be recorded on a death certificate.

"I elect to keep doing them because I feel they are important. I would not feel comfortable ruling on the manner of death for your loved one," she says. "I still feel it's important to present it to a jury and let them decide. That's why I continue doing those."

The coroner's inquest for Andrew Sallenger, who died shortly after scuffling with police in 2002, included two Republican precinct committeemen on the six-member jury.

Jurors serve for a month, up to one morning per week, and are paid $15 per service plus mileage.

Records from Boone's office dating back to 2004 show that most of her jurors serve only once, but a handful of jurors have sat on death inquests repeatedly. Records obtained by Phoenix through a Freedom of Information request and analyzed by a reporter show that four jurors have participated in inquest panels at least seven times apiece, and two others have participated four or five times. One married couple —- Eugene and Rita Gessert —- have served separately on a total of 11 death inquests.

Boone says these repeat jurors are people who fill in when people who receive summons fail to show up. "We don't always have a full jury, so we keep people that have served before," she says. "That's how we've been able to fill our slots when we can't get a full jury."

A check of the voting records of these repeat jurors shows that most are staunch Republicans, like Boone. Two women who have each served at least seven times — Patsy Bethard and Geraldine Sprouse — are Republican precinct committeemen.

It's possible that this pattern goes back further in time than the records that Phoenix obtained show. Illinois Times obtained the death inquest records of Andrew Sallenger, a mentally ill man who died after being beaten and hog-tied by Springfield Police officers in 2002. The coroner's jury endorsed the findings of Dr. Kent Harshbarger — the forensic pathologist and attorney who performed the autopsy — that Sallenger had died of agitated delirium, or natural causes. Records show that four of the six jurors on the Sallenger inquest are Republican voters whose names recur repeatedly in the more recent jury lists obtained by Phoenix; two of the jurors on the Sallenger inquest were Republican precinct captains Bethard and Sprouse.

Lair says that news suggests that Boone isn't following the law.

"The law says that if you don't have enough jurors, you can go out on the street and pull them in off the street. If she's calling somebody she knows, I'd call that questionable, especially since she's got a jury commission. The commission is responsible for having those people show up," he says.

Phoenix and Boone also disagree about who should perform autopsies. Phoenix promises that if elected, she would use the services of Dr. John Ralston, a board-certified forensic pathologist who moved to Springfield in July. Ralston says he has done autopsies for the coroners offices in several nearby counties —- Coles, Morgan, Effingham, Moultrie, Douglas, Scott and Macon —- but has not been approached by Boone to perform any autopsies for Sangamon County cases.

Boone says she is satisfied with the services of Dr. Jessica Bowman, a pathologist who has studied for the forensic pathologist exam and taken it at least twice, but hasn't yet passed the test.

"She has done 2,000 forensic autopsies, and she has done a long fellowship with a renowned forensic pathologist," Boone says. "She does not have to be board-certified. None of them have to be, to be certified as an expert forensic witness in Sangamon County courts."

Having Ralston available for the same fee as Bowman doesn't change her preference, Boone says.

"I think we're fine. We have had no problems with the one we have. That wouldn't change who I use," she says.

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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