While others quit, Kane coroner sticking with inquest system

  • Kane County Coroner Chuck West

    Kane County Coroner Chuck West

Published: 7/12/2010 12:01 AM

Last July, a grieving father took the witness stand in a Kane County courtroom to tell jurors about his infant son, who had died three months earlier in the care of an unlicensed baby-sitter.

The man wept as he displayed a photograph of the 8-month-old boy he described as "always smiling" and "perfectly healthy" until his sudden death April 22, 2009.

"Five hours, and nobody cared to look how he was?" Sanjay Dhar, of Carpentersville, asked incredulously, just moments before jurors ruled the death of his son, Sparsh, was a homicide.

For decades, Illinois coroners relied on inquest juries to classify the circumstances surrounding unnatural deaths, such as Sparsh's, as accidental, homicidal, suicidal or undetermined. But most suburban counties now see the practice as antiquated and too expensive to continue.

"It seemed to be all we were doing was preparing for and having the proceedings," said Will County Coroner Patrick O'Neil, president of the Illinois Coroners and Medical Examiners Association. "It's a timesaving measure for those of us that don't continue to have inquests. In addition to that, it certainly saves a few dollars."

A 2007 law change made it possible for coroners to decide manners of death themselves, in consult with medical professionals and police, rather than go to inquest. But more than three years later, Kane remains the only suburban county to continue doing so with any regularity.

"I think that having the input from a nonbiased group is always worthwhile," Kane County Coroner Chuck West said. "There are times when we look at them and make a decision (without an inquest). It's primarily suicides, and the reason is there's some pretty straight criteria for suicides, which makes it easy for me to make a decision on it versus going to a committee or jury."

Until early this year, West presided over inquests once a month. But he said efforts in his office to cut costs, coupled with requests from police to avoid public proceedings in open investigation deaths, have drastically scaled back the frequency. In fact, there have been no inquests in Kane County since Jan. 20.

"Do I still intend to have inquests? Yes," West said. "We were just looking at this up and coming month, and there are potentially six cases that we could go with, except (in) four of those cases we've been asked not to go because the cases are still under investigation. We honor that."

The Sparsh Dhar case is one example of why investigators are sometimes hesitant to go to inquest. When that case was called last year, Carpentersville police were forced to identify their primary suspect, Deanna Williams, nearly five months before she would be indicted on involuntary manslaughter charges.

"In some of these cases, there's information that would be known only to the victim or the offender, and you have all this going into the public record," Kane County Sheriff's Lt. Pat Gengler said.

Cutting costs

In other suburban counties, including DuPage, Lake and McHenry, money was the prime reason their coroners suspended regular inquest schedules immediately after it became an option on Jan. 1, 2007, although some high-profile cases, including that of former Metra Director Phil Pagano in McHenry, do go to inquest occasionally. Cook County has a medical examiner rather than a coroner, and likewise conducts no inquests.

In Will County, O'Neil estimates his office saved about $4,000 for every set of inquests it hasn't done since the law change took effect. But it's difficult to gauge the true savings because a variety of sources foot the bill, from the police agencies who free up officers to testify to the court system, which funds juror stipends.

"It all depends on how you want to do the math," O'Neil said.

Besides that, authorities say, inquests, unlike medical autopsies, have little to do with whether criminal charges are filed in a death, and serve mostly as a public record.

"They really have no legal influence on what we do," Kane County State's Attorney John Barsanti said.

Coming up

The discussion comes as Kane County Board members consider whether to switch to a medical examiner system in light of West's indictment last month on official misconduct charges. He is accused of allowing deputies to take a television from a decedent's home about three years ago.

Despite his criminal case and the ongoing county discussions, however, West said he will resume inquests once there are enough cases to make it worthwhile.

"If we can have four to six cases going to an inquest, then we will take them to inquest," he said. "It is not financially feasible to have a jury sit there for one or two cases."

According to O'Neil, Kane County is not alone in continuing its inquest program, albeit less frequently.

"There are still some counties that inquest all of their unnatural deaths," he said. "There are others that inquest some and not others, and some that have eliminated inquests altogether. It changes from county to county based on the elected official."