Richmond County coroner's job a law-medicine hybrid

Technology helped to advance field
Coroner Grover Tuten has been working with the coroner's office since 1970. He received the E. Leroy Sims Distinguished Service Award -- named for his late mentor -- earlier this year.

Grover Tuten got his first job handling bodies on a whim from a frustrated coroner.

It was 1970, and Tuten, at the time a police officer for Augusta, was handling the scene of a fatal wreck on Gordon Highway.

It was the third time that night that he had called then-Coroner Marvin Woodward, and Woodward was tired of losing sleep.

"Son, you need a job," Woodward said, and appointed Tuten deputy coroner on the spot.

Tuten took the job, which, back then consisted mostly of confirming death, filling out a little paperwork and sending the deceased off to a funeral home.

That was then.

In the intervening years Georgia law has tasked Tuten, now the Richmond County coroner, and his two deputies not just to confirm death but also to investigate the circumstances around it.

Richmond County's 13 hospitals and burgeoning population have made its coroner's office the busiest in Georgia, Tuten said.

The other counties with major metropolitan areas -- DeKalb, Fulton, Cobb and Gwinnett -- have an appointed medical examiner, not an elected coroner, Tuten explained.

The age of technology brought watershed moments such as DNA testing and even minor advances such as rehydrating decayed fingers to obtain fingerprints. Better information about blood-borne pathogens did away with the days of hauling a body to the hospital in the back of a station wagon.

Time has made Tuten comfortable working with death, but it hasn't erased the memory of the first person to die under his care as an emergency medical technician.

Tuten started in public service with the mentality that he would save people. Generally he was able to do that, first as a peace-keeping police officer in 1964 and then when he became an EMT in 1970.

An ambulance 40 years ago was limited in its treatment options, but Tuten was still upset when a man died of a heart attack en route to the hospital. There are some circumstances you can't do anything about and "it sticks with you," Tuten said.

Tuten's law enforcement and medical backgrounds have served him well in the coroner's position, which is essentially a hybrid of both disciplines.

Georgia law calls for a system of checks and balances that requires law enforcement, the coroner and the regional medical examiner to sign off on all violent deaths. At least two of the three must agree on the cause and manner of death.

Cause of death is the physical reason the body expired, and manner of death is how someone died. Homicide, for instance, would be the manner of death in an intentional stabbing, and "sharp force injury to the chest" would be the cause of death.

Tuten leans heavily on his two deputy coroners, Johnny McDonald and Mark Bowen, to share the workload. Bowen was hired 10 years ago, then McDonald was hired three years later, as the case load increased. Bowen was Deputy Coroner of the Year in 2010.

"I got to have two good men (to help me) and those two good men are Mark and Johnny," Tuten said.

Violent wrecks and homicides are the best-known instances for calling out the coroner' office. A majority of the coroner's work is investigating someone who died of a pre-existing medical condition or natural causes.

Heart disease killed one in four Georgians in 2009, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and stroke is another leading killer. Tuten and his deputies are trained to recognize the symptoms of these deaths, but they don't rely just on physical clues.

"We want to make sure Mary died because the good Lord said it was her time," Tuten said. "We need to make sure Bob didn't help her along the way."

Typically, they'll find a glass of bicarbonate soda by the bedside indicating someone was feeling ill before sleeping. If someone claims a spouse had heart disease, there's usually some kind of medication in the house to back that up, Tuten said.

Tuten started full time at the coroner's office in 1985, at the request of his longtime friend, Coroner Leroy Sims, now deceased. Tuten was given the 2010 award named in Sims' honor by the Georgia Coroners Association.

"It came as a total shock," he said.

Sims exemplified the importance of professionalism and compassion in the coroner's position, Tuten said.

There are some traits that cannot be learned, though: Tuten still struggles to comprehend why innocent people and small children die.

"That question never leaves you," he said.