ChesterCountyMedicineSummer2019 - 22

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The Coroner's Office

Then and Now - 334 Years of History
BY CHRISTINA VANDEPOL, MD

T

he office of Coroner goes way back - all
the way back to at least 1194 in England,
when Richard the LionHearted was
seeking money to fund wars and crusades.
English sheriffs who were supposed to represent
the King's interest in the shires were increasingly
corrupt. Coroners ("Crowners") were put in
place not just to go to the scene of unexpected
deaths, including murders, but to make sure
the property of executed criminals went to
the King and wasn't "diverted" locally. While
that's no longer a
coroner responsibility, coroners then and
now investigated sudden, unexpected,
and non-natural deaths, determined the
cause and manner of death, and wrote
death certificates.

Like so many American institutions,
the U.S. coroner system began in Pennsylvania. The "Frame of Government
for Pennsylvania," written in 1682 by
William Penn for the land he'd been
granted by King Charles II, allowed for
an appointed coroner. In 1684, Penn
himself appointed Chester County's
first coroner, James Kanela (sometime
written Kennerly), who was in office from
1685-1687. Since 1838 and continuing to the present, coroners have
been elected officials. Whether headed by an appointed or elected
Coroner, the Chester County Coroner's Office (CCCO) has always
functioned as a death investigation agency. County archives show
that early coroners were paid to examine dead bodies to ascertain
the cause of death and to hold inquests. The fee for viewing a dead
body in 1814 was $2.75, approximately the cost of a week's hotel
stay in Washington, D.C. at the time. Today the position is salaried,
with a current annual salary of approximately $75,000.

Medicolegal Investigation
Death investigation is at the intersection of legal and medical
disciplines. In the United Kingdom, in fact, coroners are usually
lawyers who head Coroner's Courts, deciding cause and manner
of death through inquests where evidence is presented by forensic
pathologists and other medical or forensic experts. Prior to the 1960s,
22 CHESTER COUNT Y Medicine | SUMMER 2019

inquests were still common in Chester County
and coroner inquests are still legal in our state.
The purpose of coroner inquests isn't to adjudicate
guilt or innocence, but to establish the facts
around a death so cause and manner of death
and possible criminal intent can be determined.
In most cases today autopsies, toxicological and
other tests, and extensive medical records allow
the probable cause and manner of death to be
determined without an inquest. There remain,
however, the occasional "undetermined" cases
or controversial situations, like deaths in police
custody, where an inquest, with deliberations transparent to the
public, are a potentially useful tool.

Infrastructure
A striking example of what hasn't changed much over time, at
least in the last 75 years or so, is the facilities of the Coroner's Office.
Not so long ago, the CCCO was housed in one small office room in
a West Chester building now occupied by the Mercato Restaurant.
Next an office was provided at 313 W. Market St, the current home
of most County administrative offices. Around 2016, the CCCO
was moved into bigger but rather depressing administrative office
space at the end of a long dim corridor in the basement of the
Government Services Center. When visiting our office, you might
be forgiven for wondering if the idea was "out of sight, out of mind."
While the administrative office has moved around, the same local
hospital morgues and autopsy rooms have been in use since the
1960s. According to Dr. Harrop, who took office in 1966, before
that autopsies were not infrequently conducted in the back of funeral
parlors. Unfortunately, the current facilities don't meet OSHA or
state Department of Labor laws. The CCCO recently failed an
accreditation audit in June 2019 because of the dismal state of its
morgue and autopsy space.

Coroners - Physicians or Not?
Have Chester County Coroners always been physicians? No, not
until Dr. Harrop's took office in 1966! In fact, the only requirement
to be a coroner in Pennsylvania is to be at least 18 years of age, a U.S.
citizen, and a resident of the county for at least 30 days. It's been
that way since the 1790 Constitution! For example, an early coroner,
Major John Harper, was a former Revolutionary War soldier and
then a saloonkeeper, before being elected coroner. Legal requirements


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