Update 6:27 p.m. on March 31, 2017: Dr. William Ralston’s resignation was not accepted by Justice Cabinet Secretary John Tilley. The two came to an agreement for Ralston to stay as chief medical examiner sometime around 6 p.m., Jimmy Pollard, a consultant for the Kentucky Coroner’s Association said.
Mike Wynn, spokesman for the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet confirmed that Dr. Ralston is not leaving his position.
Turmoil has erupted in the state’s medical examiner office, caused by a dispute with the Justice Cabinet over leadership and resources.
Dr. William Ralston, the state’s chief medical examiner, has announced that he will resign in mid-April, according to Jimmy Pollard, a consultant for the Kentucky Coroner’s Association. Ralston’s resignation follows the Justice Cabinet’s hiring two weeks ago of former lawmaker Katie Stine as executive director of the state medical examiner’s office.
A spokesman for the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet could not be reached for comment late Friday afternoon.
The Kentucky Coroner’s Association, which represents the county elected coroners, has criticized the Justice Cabinet for not providing enough money or resources to the medical examiner’s office.
Pollard said the hiring of Stine, who is being paid $80,000 a year and is eligible for $27,222 from her legislative pension, was the final straw for Ralston, who had been fighting for more funding for the medical examiner’s office for months.
Pollard also questioned Stine’s familiarity with the inner workings of the medical examiner’s office.
Medical examiners assist county coroners and deputy coroners in death and homicide investigations. The Office of the Medical Examiner or doctors affiliated with the department perform forensic autopsies through which cause of death is determined and evidence is collected.
Ralston has requested more funding and staff in the medical examiner’s office since 2016, but his pleas have gone unanswered, Pollard said.
“They weren’t open to suggestions or possible ways to work things out,” he said. “He wasn’t getting any funding or support whatsoever.”
A shortage of state medical examiners has caused delays in local cases for some time, Fayette County Coroner Gary Ginn said. With fewer examiners, it’s taking longer for county coroners to receive completed autopsy reports. And, as the number of heroin deaths has increased, Pollard said, coroners and the medical examiner’s office have more pressure to determine cause of death so U.S. attorneys can prosecute drug dealers.
Autopsies related to homicide cases have been prioritized so as not to delay investigations, but waiting for autopsy reports in accidental death cases can affect families, Ginn said. County coroners are unable to sign death certificates until autopsy reports are completed. Until death certificates are signed, families are often unable to begin taking care of matters like life insurance or property transfers.
Some county coroners do what they can to alleviate the workload for state medical examiners by taking their own toxicology samples and requesting autopsies only when absolutely necessary, Ginn said. But with the shortage, the delays persist.
“Since I’ve been coroner, we’ve worked with the Justice Cabinet, and I think it’s been as good as it can be,” Ginn said. “I’m not really sure what has happened that’s caused this ... I’d like to know what that is and hopefully get that solved so we can come together and continue working together because we’re working for the public, and the public deserves to have the service of their coroners and the state available.”