Richmond County coroner's job a law-medicine hybrid

Technology helped to advance field

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

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.   Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
Jackie Ricciardi/Staff
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.

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.

Comments (11) Add comment
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seabeau
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seabeau 10/19/10 - 08:08 am
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In many states a coroner must

In many states a coroner must have a medical degree.

aninsider
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aninsider 10/19/10 - 10:53 am
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Grover was actually in Warren

Grover was actually in Warren County when I started in fire and EMS. He did a lot to help our county and I know Richmond county is glad to have him. I know from experience that being a coroner or deputy coroner is not an easy job. Most people think it's just taking care of the victims, but the hardest part, to me, is notifying the families. Grover and his crew do a great job and it's good to see them get the recognition they deserve.

Riverman1
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Riverman1 10/19/10 - 02:21 pm
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How does Mr. Tuten decide who

How does Mr. Tuten decide who should have an autopsy? There is one case I wonder about. If a young person without a medical condition that would cause death is found dead, I'd think the death would call for an autopsy instead of a subjective opinion the death was from natural causes.

miss.k.
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miss.k. 10/19/10 - 04:08 pm
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I thought that was the

I thought that was the standard for otherwise healthy people under a certain age to have an autopsy if they had no past medical history?

MysteryWriter
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MysteryWriter 10/19/10 - 04:51 pm
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Under Georgia law, autopsies

Under Georgia law, autopsies are required in deaths occurring:

1. As a result of violence;
2. By suicide or casualty;
3. Suddenly when in apparent good health;
4. When unattended by a physician;
5. In any suspicious or unusual manner, with particular attention to those persons 16 years of age and under;
6. After birth but before seven years of age if the death is unexpected or unexplained;
7. As a result of an execution carried out pursuant to the imposition of the death penalty;
8. An inmate of a state hospital or a state, county, or city penal institution; or
9. After having been admitted to a hospital in an unconscious state and without regaining consciousness within 24 hours of admission.

Riverman1
82085
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Riverman1 10/19/10 - 06:11 pm
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Mystery Writer, thanks for

Mystery Writer, thanks for that. An autopsy was required in the case I'm thinking about because it certainly fits what you posted. It wasn't performed.

What I believe happened was that it was an overdose of drugs and Tuten wanted to spare the family the grief. I don't have a problem with that, but if the cause of death is as I suspect, there may have been a value in that knowledge by helping prevent others from getting drugs from the same source.

corgimom
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corgimom 10/19/10 - 08:41 pm
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Riverman, coroners have been

Riverman, coroners have been fudging death certificates for years. In the old days, lots of young unmarried girls died from "peritonitis", "unspecified" when it really was "botched abortions".

You go back and look at death certificates in SC and GA of young white females- boy, there sure was a lot of unspecified peritonitis in those days.

AutumnLeaves
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AutumnLeaves 10/19/10 - 09:23 pm
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corgimom, what are you

corgimom, what are you inferring above?
corgimom
"corgimom Tuesday, Oct. 19 8:41 PM Riverman, coroners have been fudging death certificates for years." Also, I don't appreciate your personal attack yesterday: "get a grip" etc. was a rude thing to say to me and that was just one of the things you wrote to me that were over the line. I was giving you good advice. Whether you take it or not is up to you, but considering what you just wrote, I worry you aren't going to take it. I would like to continue seeing you on here, but not hoisting yourself on your own petard. I would miss your comments if you were no longer on here, even though we sometimes don't agree. If you are going to be rude to me, I will comment on it if I read it, which I just did (I just read your comment from yesterday). It doesn't become you. I do my best not to be unkind to others, but don't mistake it for weakness.

AutumnLeaves
6958
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AutumnLeaves 10/19/10 - 09:51 pm
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For easy reference, here is

For easy reference, here is your post:
corgimom
[Monday, Oct. 18....
"corgimom, if I were you, I would stop posting this information on the Chronicle, because those records are sometimes wrong. They are entered and eventually purged by people who sometimes make mistakes or are simply behind in the posting of updated information. You could refer interested parties to augustaga.gov without posting the information on here, which is putting yourself and the Chronicle in an awkward position if the information turns out to be incorrect. That is why augustaga.gov has the disclaimer on there that you must "accept" every time you look up a case, so that THEY aren't liable if it turns out to be incorrect when it is copied elsewhere.... You follow?"

Oh, for corn's sake. Get a grip, AL.

If you would take the time to READ what I wrote, you will see that I carefully attribute the source. I am not worried in the slightest about any "awkward position", and I highly doubt the AC is either.

NOBODY is liable for the information. Do you get that? You know what the laws are regarding copying information from an Internet site? There aren't any.

You should also know that booking information, court records, etc. is public knowledge. So you can rest assured, AL.

Moving on."] Again, sometimes that public information is WRONG, corgimom, something you just inferred above yourself.

AutumnLeaves
6958
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AutumnLeaves 10/19/10 - 09:54 pm
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Grover Tuten is a good man

Grover Tuten is a good man and a conscientious professional. I am proud that we have someone of his caliber working in his position.

Riverman1
82085
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Riverman1 10/20/10 - 11:53 am
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Corgimom said, "Riverman,

Corgimom said, "Riverman, coroners have been fudging death certificates for years. In the old days, lots of young unmarried girls died from "peritonitis", "unspecified" when it really was "botched abortions".

You go back and look at death certificates in SC and GA of young white females- boy, there sure was a lot of unspecified peritonitis in those days."

Well, that's the point. If they had performed autopsies as required they may have been able to track down the backroom abortionist.

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