During unprecedented spate of murder trials, coroner’s departure adds to Douglas County’s challenges

Douglas County Coroner Dr. Erik Mitchell testifies Thursday, Sept. 3, 2015, in the probable cause hearing for Rontarus Washington Jr., a Lawrence man charged with first-degree murder.

Douglas County District Court is in the middle of what’s thought to be an unprecedented number of murder trials scheduled in close succession.

The clerk’s office is extra busy, the jury pool is being stretched, judges’ dockets are crowded and the district attorney’s office has brought on an extra part-time employee to keep up.

On top of that, the county coroner is gone.

Between when all those victims died and the dates all their accused killers are going to trial, the doctor who performed autopsies on almost all the bodies resigned as coroner and moved out of state.

Erik Mitchell will continue to testify, but that’s requiring some increased cost and coordination.

“It’s obviously key that we have Dr. Mitchell, since he performed the autopsies, come back to give that testimony,” assistant county administrator Sarah Plinsky said. “… It’s something that the county will work with the DA on, so the DA has what he needs to provide prosecution.”

Mitchell, previously working out of Kansas City, Kan., resigned as county coroner effective April 30, Plinsky said.

The court recently wrapped up a manslaughter trial in June, then a cluster of three murder trials in a six-week span in July and August. Six more murder trials are currently scheduled to take place in the next six months, plus a trial in an alleged illegal drug death case.

Mitchell did the autopsies on all but one of the 11 bodies at the root of those cases.

They include, among others, a woman who was stabbed and bludgeoned to death in 2014 at Cedarwood Apartments, an infant who died at a Eudora day care in 2016 and the three young people who were gunned down on Massachusetts Street in 2017.

Mitchell’s new employer is charging Douglas County $2,000 per day plus travel for him to return to testify, according to Fond du Lac County, Wis., executive Allen Buechel. The rate is $400 per hour for video testimony.

“It seems high,” Buechel said, “but they don’t work in small amounts of money.”

Fond du Lac County has its own medical examiner’s office, operated by the county government.

After applying for the chief medical examiner position that Fond du Lac County had been advertising for, Mitchell was hired and started in the position on July 9, Buechel said. The office conducts autopsies on deaths within the county, and also brings in revenue by conducting autopsies for other counties, Buechel said.

Buechel said considering Mitchell’s salary and benefits, the Fond du Lac County’s out-of-pocket costs for him are $1,200 per day. He said the rest of the fee they’re charging is for “potential loss of revenue” while he’s not performing autopsies for them.

Buechel clarified, however, that Mitchell is still awaiting his license in Wisconsin before he can perform autopsies there. Buechel said it’s not unusual for the licensing process to take three or four months, based on the experiences of other pathologists in Wisconsin. Mitchell has been working for Fond du Lac County for almost three months.

Plinsky said Douglas County has always paid a fee for Mitchell’s testimony, $250 per hour. It comes out of the DA’s budget.

She said that’s the rate the county intends to pay going forward, plus Mitchell’s travel costs to get here.

Multiplied by eight hours, that totals $2,000, though in the past Mitchell has typically driven in from Kansas City and spent a matter of hours — or less — on the stand and not an entire day.

DA Charles Branson said his office is used to dealing with out-of-state witnesses and didn’t see getting Mitchell here as a problem. However, he said, expenses will go up.

“There will certainly be added costs to bring Dr. Mitchell back to Kansas to testify,” Branson said, via email. “We have an obligation to pay for his travel, lodging and meals while he is here.”

Branson said that although law allows for video testimony if both sides agree, defendants usually don’t want to have someone testify against them via video. Plus, his office prefers in-person testimony anyway.

“Live testimony is usually much more effective for a jury,” Branson said.

Plinsky said she did not yet have an estimate for total budget impact due to Mitchell’s move. When asked what the county has paid to Fond du Lac County so far, she said the county was still reviewing invoices from his testimony this summer.

She said testimony and related fees are in addition what the county pays to have autopsies conducted. She said the county’s 2018 budget for autopsy services is $162,225.

Coroner position status

Douglas County hasn’t yet named a new coroner, but hasn’t gone without coroner services.

The county contracts with a private company, Kansas City-based Frontier Forensics Midwest, for its coroner services and will continue to, Plinsky said.

Since Mitchell left Frontier Forensics, another doctor with the company — who has been Douglas County’s deputy coroner since 2006 — has been acting coroner, Plinsky said.

The county is currently in the process of formalizing a new contract with Frontier Forensics, in which deputy coroner Altaf Hossain will move to the coroner position, Plinsky said. Other doctors there will be named as deputy coroners.

Frontier Forensics provides coroner services for dozens of other Kansas and Missouri counties.

In addition to Douglas County, Mitchell was head coroner for eight other Kansas counties, as well as a deputy coroner for Wyandotte County, according to the Frontier Forensics website.

The business was sold to a Nashville-based company in mid-2017, the Frontier Forensics website says and Kansas Secretary of State business records confirm. Frontier Forensics is continuing to provide coroner services to Kansas and Missouri counties under new ownership by Forensic Medical Management Services.

Mitchell has said that he was retiring during testimony given at court hearings earlier this year. Later, once he was hired by Wisconsin, he disclosed his employment there during testimony.

Until this spring, Mitchell had been Douglas County’s official coroner for more than two decades, since 1996.

Douglas County coroner Erik Mitchell, pictured in 2006.

He’s performed well more than 11,000 autopsies in his 40 years as a medical examiner, according to his testimony in court.

Prior to becoming Douglas County’s coroner, Mitchell was chief medical examiner for Onondaga County, N.Y., for 10 years.

In 1993, he resigned after an investigation by the DA’s office there concluded he had overstepped his authority and mismanaged his office, according to an Associated Press story published by The New York Times at that time. The prosecutor never filed criminal charges and agreed to drop his investigation when Mitchell resigned. Among other things, the prosecutor found evidence that Mitchell frequently removed organs from corpses without the permission of family members, and that the office provided a hospital pathology department with bladders and kidneys from about 150 bodies, according to the article.

Buechel said his vetting found Mitchell to be hardworking and qualified, and he felt comfortable hiring him. Buechel said he personally spoke with the New York prosecutor who did the investigation in the 1990s and also had his staff contact numerous references from Kansas.

“I wanted to know how he was perceived since he’s been there the last 25 years,” Buechel said. “We got very good feedback on what he’s done since he’s practiced in Kansas.”

Mitchell’s presumed successor as Douglas County coroner, Hossain, is the doctor who performed the autopsy on the body of the one recent Douglas County homicide victim that Mitchell didn’t.

Hossain testified to his findings regarding the shooting death of Eudora resident Bo Hopson during the murder trial of Danny W. Queen in July.

According to the Frontier Forensics website, Hossain received his medical degree in 1976 from Dhaka Medical College in Bangladesh. He went on to receive a master’s of public health degree in epidemiology at Yale University and a doctorate in pathology from Louisiana State University. Hossain completed his forensic pathology residency at the Broward County (Fla.) Medical Examiner’s Office in 2005.


Autopsies performed for Douglas County

Deaths resulting from crimes are a small percentage of the medical examiner’s workload. Kansas law requires coroner notification — and in certain circumstances, full autopsies — for many other types of death, including suicides, child deaths and any death in law enforcement custody. Here are the numbers of total examinations and full surgical autopsies performed per year for Douglas County.

2017

99 autopsies

26 external exams

2018 (to date)

49 autopsies

16 external exams

Source: Sarah Plinsky, Douglas County assistant administrator

Contact Journal-World public safety reporter Sara Shepherd

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