JACKSON — The Wyoming Supreme Court says the Board of Coroner Standards doesn’t have the authority to investigate an elected coroner for misconduct.
The final opinion, filed Jan. 8, stems from an ongoing dispute over Teton County Coroner Dr. Brent Blue’s alleged misconduct during a May 2017 coroner’s inquest into Anthony Birkholz’s death.
The jury in Blue’s inquest concluded the 31-year-old’s death could have been prevented. More specifically, the three jurors said Birkholz died “due to aspiration secondary to alcohol and 5-methoxy-DMT ingestion.”
Birkholz, an artist and filmmaker, died at Dr. Bruce Hayse’s Jackson house in January 2017 after a night of hard partying, witnesses said during inquest testimony.
Challenge to the inquest
Birkholz’s father Paul Cassidy and Hayse were unhappy with the verdict. They also claimed Blue intentionally misled the jury, misrepresented evidence and unfairly targeted Hayse.
The two teamed up to fight the verdict, filing a motion for it to be set aside in Teton County District Court.
That motion, filed by attorney Frank Chapman, was dismissed for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, which the justices also affirmed after an appeal.
When the Wyoming Supreme Court deemed the dismissal proper, Hayse and Cassidy’s attorneys took on the Wyoming Board of Coroner Standards by asking for Blue to be investigated for misconduct.
The board twice declined the request, stating it fell outside the statutory and administrative duties of the board.
“What we were told at every avenue is that there isn’t a way to enforce ethical behavior from a coroner and that we need to change the law,” Hayse said Tuesday night. “If you get a rogue coroner you are pretty much without any legal recourse.”
In emails obtained by the News&Guide, Wyoming Board of Coroner Standards Chairperson Connie Jacobson said the board exists only to train coroners and make sure they comply with state rules.
The majority of Wyoming Supreme Court justices agreed, concluding the board has authority only to review complaints related to coroner education and training, per Wyoming law.
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“Because the board is not authorized to take any action in response to alleged instances of coroner misconduct, it would be pointless to require the board to investigate complaints of coroner misconduct,” Justice Kate Fox stated in the opinion.
Justice Keith Kautz disagreed.
“From the plain words of the applicable statutes, the Board of Coroners has the authority (and obligation) to review a complaint that a coroner failed to comply with the board’s standards dealing with the investigation of coroner cases,” Kautz wrote. “Our rules of statutory construction require us to read the statute in a way to avoid making provisions meaningless.”
Kautz said the board investigating allegations of misconduct against a coroner is logical.
“I would reverse,” he stated, “and would direct the board to conduct an investigation.”
Cassidy and Hayse have probably exhausted their legal options when it comes to fighting the inquest’s results.
Their attorney Frank Chapman said Tuesday he was “disappointed that the court won’t hold coroners accountable.”
Chapman previously called the coroner’s inquest process “bastardized.” He criticized the law because it doesn’t allow those involved to appeal the verdict.
Hayse sees the inquest statute as flawed and said he would like to see legislative action to fix it.
Fremont County Coroner Mark Stratmoen has held two inquests since he became coroner in 2015. He has kept up with the Teton County case and said the high court’s opinion reiterates what he’s always known.
“The coroner’s office historically is an independent agency that looks into the circumstances, the manner and cause of death,” Stratmoen said. “That goes back hundreds of years. There should be some sort of independent person or institution that looks at that.”
Stratmoen said the coroner acts as a non-biased investigator.
“We have certain legal powers but we aren’t the judiciary,” he said. “We look for the truth in how a death was caused. The recent decision validated that.”
Hayse doesn’t plan to take further action but said he’d like to see Blue apologize to Birkholz’s father for “muddying” his family name.
“I would like to see a demonstration of empathy in that regard,” Hayse said.