ABERDEEN — A former Minnehaha County coroner argues that South Dakota's system of electing coroners — used in about half the states in the country — can lead to potential conflicts of interest.
That is, once called out to investigate a death, such a coroner easily could offer, even implicitly, to provide funeral services for the deceased.
Brad Randall, who retired from his position in 2010, believes the system can lead to funeral directors being elected as coroner — with potentially lucrative consequences. He thinks that coroners should be appointed to avoid such conflicts, but not every South Dakota coroner agrees, the Aberdeen American News reported.
"The biggest conflicts of interest exist in the smaller counties where there are more than one, but just a few, funeral directors. It is beneficial for a funeral director to be coroner," Randall said, adding that even honest coroners who are funeral directors could end up getting extra business.
Brown County coroner Michael Carlsen, owner of Carlsen Funeral Home and Crematory, said he knows that perception, and that he's extra cautious when asking about funeral arrangements. Carlsen said that blatant opportunism would likely lead to a "serious backlash" from people.
"We put no undue influences on anybody," Carlsen said.
The coroners system works differently in South Dakota's two most populous counties: In Minnehaha County, the appointed coroner is also called a medical examiner, and Pennington County's sheriff is also its coroner.
Carlsen said that coroners across South Dakota have backgrounds varying from funeral directors to law enforcement to people with medical training.
Minnehaha County medical examiner Kenneth Snell, a forensic pathologist, said there's a benefit for coroners to have medical training because they understand diseases better and can more easily figure out a cause of death.
The state mandates training for new coroners and continuing education for incumbents.
"I've never heard of a case in South Dakota where a potential death investigation was botched, but I wouldn't be surprised by it," Snell said. "I think there is a concern there with lay coroners and their understanding of the causes of sudden death."