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Big reforms coming to coroner, medical examiner offices in Washington

Gov. Jay Inslee signs House Bill 1326 on Monday in Olympia.
Gov. Jay Inslee signs House Bill 1326 on Monday in Olympia.

In Washington’s smallest counties, elected prosecutors investigate suspicious and unusual deaths when they aren’t trying cases. Some say the dual role is ripe for conflicts of interest — especially in cases of police using deadly force. 

A new bill signed by Gov. Jay Inslee marks the beginning of the end of the practice. 

Starting in January 2025, counties with fewer than 40,000 people will either elect or appoint a coroner, or contract with neighboring counties for death investigation services. 

House Bill 1326, which Inslee signed Monday, also institutes other reforms to the state’s patchwork system of death investigation, which is made up of a combination of offices run by appointed medical examiners or elected coroners, the latter with a wide range of experience.

The updated law establishes stricter training and certification requirements for coroner and medical examiner offices statewide. Full-time personnel affiliated with those offices must complete training through a state academy within a year. Part-time personnel have up to 18 months to complete the training. And all offices must be accredited by the national or international trade associations by July 2025 and maintain their accreditation in perpetuity. 

If those requirements aren’t met, a quarter of the autopsy reimbursements allocated by the state Treasurer’s Office will be withheld until the county falls into compliance. Counties, which are often strapped for cash and resources for death investigations, rely on those funds to cover costs in a system that’s expensive to operate. 

Last year, KNKX aired a three-part series on the many problems facing the state’s death investigation system. The bill signed into law Monday addresses some of the problems uncovered in KNKX’s investigation. An effort by the King County Medical Society, which aims to completely overhaul the system, is ongoing.

Dan Bigelow is the prosecutor-coroner in Wahkiakum County.

“I guess I’ll be out of a job come 2025,” he said in an interview Monday.

Bigelow admits trying cases while juggling death investigations isn’t the perfect solution, saying the arrangement is “ill-fitting.” But the state’s new approach isn’t any better. 

“It was a solution that started out ugly, still sounds ugly,” he said of the current system. “But if you shovel with a rake long enough, you at least get good at shoveling with a rake.”

Now, Bigelow says, the state is swapping a rake for a knife. He says the only way those small counties will get the 24/7 coverage they need to investigate deaths is to rely on neighboring counties, farther away.

“A lot of the little places are going to end up with less service than they have right now,” he said.

He also worries the stricter training requirements translate to fewer people willing to do the work.

“We need more people,” Bigelow said. “We don’t need to place barriers in between the people that we need and the job that we need done, especially in rural counties.”

And, he added, those trained professionals will only stick around as long as it takes to find a better paying job somewhere else.

Still, Bigelow acknowledges that other prosecutors welcome the relief of duties. He says he knows at least one prosecuting attorney who didn’t know he was on the hook for death investigations until after he won the election. In some cases, deputy prosecutors even avoid applying for jobs in counties where they know they’ll have to assume coroner duties.

Rep. Debra Lekanoff has talked to a lot of those prosecutors. Lekanoff is a Democrat representing the 40th District, which includes San Juan County and portions of Skagit and Whatcom counties. She sponsored the bill.

“When you have a criminal investigation, it’s pertinent to have a prosecutor and a coroner in two separate positions,” Lekanoff told KNKX Public Radio in an interview Tuesday, stressing the importance of maintaining the integrity of evidence and investigations.

“It can be a conflict of interest, especially if you’re calling yourself to testify,” she added. “That’s not going to work in our rural communities.”

Lekanoff, the only Native American woman serving in the state House of Representatives, says that’s important when talking about missing and murdered Indigenous women. Those cases are happening primarily in rural areas, she said.

The improved training also was important to her, to make sure investigations aren’t mismanaged.

“It’s not a matter of how many times this could happen,” she said, “it’s the one time that this could happen.”

She says the work of coroners deeply affects families who are grieving the loss of loved ones. 

“If I can help one Washingtonian’s heart heal, it’s better than none,” Lekanoff said. “It’s a little bill that goes a long way.”

Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.