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Behind the Crime Scene: Nebraska investigators (Part 2)
Nebraska is one of two states that use County Attorneys as coroners. They're in charge of investigating deaths, even ones labeled suspicious. But is that the best process?
In Nebraska, County Attorneys serve as County Coroners.
Tanya: "You've got a family somewhere that just need answers basically and to give them those answers is huge."
October 20th, 2011, police respond to the 800 block of North Lexington Avenue in Hastings in the early morning hours. Upon arrival, 58 year old Danny Weyers is dead on scene.
"That was a case where we got there and we couldn't readily determine the cause of death," said Donna Fegler Daiss.
Adams County Attorney and Coroner, Donna Fegler Daiss labeled the death suspicious and an autopsy was performed.
"The results of that autopsy indicated no specific cause of death was found," Fegler Daiss said.
News 5: Do you think there could have been someone else involved in that case?
"I can tell you that we've looked at a number of individuals. The man had injuries; unfortunately we couldn't ascertain if those, any of those particular injuries were the exact cause of death," said Fegler Daiss.
News 5: Our job is to let the public know what's going on and with that case specifically, we weren't given a lot of information.
"Well, I think you also have to weigh the public's right to know and I've always been trying. We've always tried to be very forthcoming with the media," said Fegler Daiss.
Two years later, that case is still under investigation.
"Lawyers are trained as lawyers, they're not trained as medical professionals," said former Howard County Attorney Bob Sivick.
News 5: Do you think that there's anything that could ever be over looked that maybe a coroner would have caught?
"Of course. We're not perfect and especially when we don't have medical training," said Fegler Daiss.
"I hope and I think we're not missing a lot of murders. There are probably cases where we're making calls about the cause of a natural death that if we'd had an autopsy we might revise that," Hall County Attorney Mark Young said.
County Attorneys receive training twice a year for death investigations.
"That's a system that was set up in the early 20th century that no longer meets the standards of the 20th century, let alone the 21st century," said Sivick.
Former Howard County Attorney Bob Sivick, who is now the Grand Island City Attorney, says that that training is not enough.
"That's inadequate. The only proper training for someone to make decisions as of cause of death is a four year medical degree and a residency as a forensic pathologist," said Sivick.
Bob Sivick served as Howard County Attorney from 2007 to 2011 meaning he was also the coroner and performed death investigations.
News 5: And you didn't have the correct training for that?
"I had no training for that. I was concerned with my lack of expertise and lack of knowledge in carrying out this responsibility," said Sivick.
And if the case goes to court, there's an inherent conflict of interest.
"If it's a homicide case, that's conceivably the county attorney could be called to testify in his own case as to why this person died. Prosecutors cannot call themselves as witnesses," said Sivick.
Plus the medical examiner should act independently, with no bias on either side of the case. So what's the solution?
"The only way it can be done properly is for the state to simply pull the resources of everyone in the state and create a statewide medical examiner's office. You can't fix this with band aids and patches," Sivick said.
Sivick says he thinks the barrier is cost when it comes to having a medical examiner system. It's going to cost several million dollars to set up a state wide medical examiner office and will cost millions to carry out the duties. But he says it should be a priority.
Another issue that Sivick talked about what a suspicious death that might uncover a health problem like E Coli that could be missed.
So what's the next step?
Sivick says he thinks it would be a good idea for the legislature to revisit the issue and look at creating and operating a state wide medical examiner system.
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