Joanne Richardson: Voters won't get to choose Summit County coroner's successor

Some government jobs are too important to be left up to the whims of voters. That, at least, seems to be the thinking behind the exit strategy of Summit County Coroner Joanne Richardson, who announced her upcoming resignation this week -- just after the deadline passed for scheduling an election to replace her. Instead, the county commissioners will have to appoint a successor to serve until the 2014 general election after Richardson, who's been in office ten years, steps down next month.

Richardson has been an advocate for higher standards of professionalism among county coroners in Colorado. She says she's been wanting to spend more time with her family and planning the move for months, but the timing of her departure also sends a message of sorts. As the Summit Daily News reports in this account, she wanted to skip an election in order to prevent "too many CSI wannabes coming out of the woodwork."

She has a point. As previously reported in my 2009 feature "The Body Shop," 23 states have either statewide or county medical-examiner systems that put doctors in charge of death investigations. Colorado is not one of them. In most of the state's counties, anyone who's a citizen, has a high school diploma and no felony convictions can run for coroner.

That's a sore point for Richardson, who at least has a master's degree in forensic science -- which makes her much better prepared for the office than a number of her colleagues. In some rural counties, the coroner is not only a layman but the local undertaker or a person with close ties to local law enforcement, raising inevitable quandaries about conflicts of interest. Although autopsies must be performed by a qualified forensic pathologist -- there are just sixteen of them in the state, many busily under contract with several jurisdictions at once -- it's the coroner who decides what cases merit an autopsy or extensive follow-up investigation.

With the rising popularity of CSI and other TV shows celebrating the glamorous world of death investigation, there are more people vying to get into the field than ever -- and that's led to some strange election campaigns and bizarre developments. To name just a few:

  • Last year Adams County reached a whopping $1.6 million settlement with several former employees of its coroner's office over sex harassment and retaliation issues. Female employees had complained about unwanted "neck rubs" and other attentions from a deputy coroner, and ex-coroner James Hibbard, a former sheriff's deputy with a bachelor's degree, had been accused of retaliating against his own forensic pathologist for reporting the harassment -- as well as using autopsy suite cameras to peek at the cleavage of female employees.
  • One of the candidates for Park County's coroner in 2010 was a former deputy coroner, now running a mobile massage therapy business, whom Richardson had declined to retain in Summit County after a background check turned up a domestic violence case that resulted in a deferred judgment. The candidate lost.
  • The relationship between Douglas County Coroner Lora Thomas and Sheriff Dave Weaver became quite strained last year after Weaver complained that Thomas had released sensitive information about a double-murder investigation -- after first offering to withhold it if she and her staff could get back access to gym facilities and vending machines that the sheriff's office had denied her. Thomas, a former Colorado State Patrol officer, later admitted that the move was "a terrible mistake on my part."
  • In Arapahoe County two years ago, veteran coroner and pathologist Michael Dobersen switched parties, from Republican and Democrat -- and faced a stiff challenge from attorney Jay Ledbetter, who contended that the office was chiefly a "legal function." Ledbetter also hinted at a hush-hush military commando background, but available military records provided no documentation of his clandestine missions. Dobersen won the election but has indicated this will be his last term.
Denver officials have opted out of the elected-coroner system, choosing instead to appoint a medical examiner who also carries the title of coroner. Some other counties allow their coroners to be exempted from term limits if they're also forensic pathologists, which is how Dobersen has managed to endure as Arapahoe County's coroner since 1993. Richardson's neatly timed resignation is yet more fodder for the argument in favor of scrapping the elected coroner system for one that relies on the appointment of professionals.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Lora Thomas: Ethics complaint highlights bitter feud between coroner and sheriff."

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Alan Prendergast has been writing for Westword for over thirty years. He teaches journalism at Colorado College; his stories about the justice system, historic crimes, high-security prisons and death by misadventure have won numerous awards and appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies.
Contact: Alan Prendergast