Experts: Crime-scene protocol flawed in Southworth case

law requires calling Coroner immediately

ksaltz@herald-leader.comJune 16, 2010 

Experts say two critical things need to happen when a body is discovered at a crime scene: The scene must be secured, and the coroner should be contacted to determine whether the person is dead.

David Jude, spokesman for Kentucky State Police, said there is no time limit for contacting the coroner. Still, "time is critical," he said. "The quicker we can get everyone involved the better."

But according to state law, the coroner is supposed to be called to the scene immediately.

Timing has been at issue since Lexington police found Umi Southworth's badly beaten body in bushes in the back yard of her home on Meadowthorpe Avenue last week. Nearly five hours passed before investigators realized Southworth, 44, was alive and she received medical attention.

Gary Ginn, the Fayette County coroner, has said his office was not contacted until 9:05 p.m. that Wednesday — more than two hours after police arrived at the scene.

Another two hours later, Ginn discovered Southworth was alive. An ambulance was called at 11:08 p.m., and Southworth was taken to University of Kentucky Hospital, where she died the following afternoon.

No arrests have been made in the case.

Ginn could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Lexington police launched an internal investigation to assess the situation last week, and Mayor Jim Newberry announced Tuesday that an outside agency has been asked to review the case.

Newberry released a statement expressing his sympathy to Southworth's family.

The mayor added he is "concerned about our response to her death, as is Chief (Ronnie) Bastin."

"We have discussed the situation in some detail and we have agreed that professionals from outside the Division of Police should be involved in the review of police's response to the incident," the statement said.

Newberry said the report will include a timetable for developing and initiating any recommended changes.

Criminal investigation expert and former law enforcement officer Tim Dimoff said that it did not appear as though proper protocol was followed in Southworth's case.

Dimoff said once the crime scene is secured, the investigation should wait until the victim is officially pronounced dead by a medical professional. If the victim is declared dead, then the priority is crime scene preservation. If there is any doubt, however, the new priority becomes saving a life, Dimoff said.

Sometimes, because of a very low pulse or shallow breathing, a body can take on the appearance of death, which is why calling the coroner immediately is important, he said.

"Police probably didn't feel it was a necessity to call the coroner right away, but they didn't have the proper confirmation to move on," Dimoff said.

According to Kentucky Revised Statutes, any person finding a body whose death appears to be caused by homicide or violence "shall immediately notify the coroner, or his deputy, and a law enforcement agency which shall report to the scene within a reasonable time."

Bill Bisceglia, president of the Kentucky Coroners Association, said he has never experienced a case in which police did not notify him for several hours after finding a body.

Bisceglia, the Bell County coroner, said the majority of the time he is called to scenes, ambulance services are present to pronounce death. But if the coroner arrives before the ambulance, it is the coroner's duty to check a body for signs of life.

"We are bound to check for normal signs of life if EMS are not there," he said.

Bisceglia said coroners do not typically carry medical equipment that checks for vital signs, but ambulances do. He said it is unusual to arrive at a scene at which EMS is not there.

Jude said there are certain scenarios in which it would not be necessary to call an ambulance to a crime scene. If the victim is clearly deceased, "for example, a high-powered shotgun at close range to the head," then police would probably not call for an ambulance. However if there is any possibility the victim might be alive, Jude said, calling for an ambulance becomes an issue of liability.

"If we have any question of whether a person may or may not be dead, if we have any doubt whatsoever, we are going to call medical services," he said

While the coroner or another medical professional may declare a person dead, Jude said, police officers cannot.

David Craig, human resources vice president for Fazoli's, where Southworth worked, said her co-workers were told by Lexington police about 8 p.m. last Wednesday that Southworth was dead. They learned the next day that she was alive, then had to deal with her actual death later in the day.

The chain of events has left Southworth's neighbors confused about what occurred and wondering whether things could have been different if Southworth had received medical help sooner.

Urban County Councilman Tom Blues, who represents the Meadowthorpe area, said he thinks there are questions to be answered about police policy, but he did not want to jump to conclusions before the internal investigation was complete.

"I would much prefer not to leap ahead. I want to see what the Division of Police has to say on this," Blues said. "I don't want to call for anything that would seem to be prejudgmental, because there are so few facts here."

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