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Behind the Crime Scene: Nebraska investigators
From manslaughter to murder, thousands of deaths are labeled suspicious every year. But who is in charge of investigating the case?
News 5's Katie Gauthier has our Target 5 special report behind the crime scene.
Bright yellow tape is strung across a crime scene that says in thick black letters Do Not Cross. But someone does have to cross that line.
"It's an unusual aspect of the job," said Hall County Attorney Mark Young.
A workplace accident, a suspicious death, a grisly murder.
"You see horrible things," said Young.
If there's an unattended death, you may be surprised who responds.
"We utilize law enforcement, county attorneys to act as coroners in our state," said Senator Pete Pirsch.
In the state of Nebraska the county attorney also serves as the county coroner.
"We get called out to any unattended death, unattended meaning there is no medical personal present at the time of death," said Adams County Attorney Donna Fegler Daiss.
Nebraska is one of two states that use county attorneys as coroners.
"As a baby lawyer, I was somewhat surprised that I was going to end up being the county coroner, not shocked, but it was a surprise," Young said.
"We work with law enforcement to insure that nothing illegal has happened in the course of that death and then our job is to also sign and provide the information for the death certificates," said Fegler Daiss.
News 5: Do you think those are big shoes to fill, to play the coroner and the county attorney?
"I think they're immensely big shoes because we're lawyers, none of us when we went to law school obtained any type of medical training. So when you walk into this job, it's basically on the job training," said Fegler Daiss.
News 5: As a county attorney, do you feel fit to be investigating these deaths?
"In a perfect world, I would prefer to have a medical examiner system where each county had a pathologist who would do an autopsy of everyone who dies under any kind of questionable circumstances," said Young.
Our lawyers, our county prosecutors are the ones filling out death certificates. In fact, it's their job to list the cause of death.
"If it's an unusual one then the next step is we're in touch with the pathologist to get the autopsy set up," Young said.
"You go to law school, three years of law school, nowhere in there is there training for death investigations, whatsoever," said Senator Pirsch's legislative aide Tanya Borjes.
That's why one Omaha senator made it his goal to change the way that death investigations are performed.
"You are in many cases running against the clock," said Pirsch.
Senator Pirsch compiled a nearly 300 page report and presented it in 2009 on standards of death investigations in the state of Nebraska.
LB 671 set a guideline of training for county attorneys across the state.
"They literally would have a checklist of everything they need to go through when they arrive on that scene," Borjes said.
"There were discrepancies in what may occur in one county may not be occurring in the next county," said Pirsch.
Now death investigations are uniform across the state meaning one done in Hall County looks the same as one in Adams County.
And when it comes to an unusual death, important information can't fall through the cracks.
"That's somebody's son, brother, father, cousin, mother, sister, we can't lose sight of that," said Borjes.
Since the legislation passed, County Attorneys are required to take classes on death investigations.
"The County Attorney's Association puts on a training twice a year," said Young.
"That training doesn't replace the training that one would get if they went to medical school and had all of that information but it has been helpful I think to the attorneys as we go out onto scenes," Fegler Daiss said.
Nebraska is one of two states that use county attorneys as a coroner.
In smaller counties in the state of Washington the coroner is the county attorney. In larger counties, the coroner is elected and may not be a practicing attorney.
So according to this report, we are essentially the only one that uses county attorneys as coroners statewide.
The training is put on twice a year for county attorneys. But some say that training still isn't enough.
In fact, we'll hear from a former county attorney tomorrow and look at specific cases as our Target 5 report Behind the Crime Scene continues.
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