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A Public Death: Coroner Goes Rogue with Suicide-By-Cop Finding

A Public Death: Coroner Goes Rogue with Suicide-By-Cop Finding

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death certificate, william heisel, autopsy, coroner, reporting on health

A coroner in Pennsylvania has decided that a man who was shot to death by police officers actually wanted to die.

Whether Coroner S. Timothy Warco conducted a séance to divine the intentions of the deceased we may never know, but Warco is making his hunch a historical fact by recording it on a death certificate.

Antidote would love to see this death certificate, but, like Bigfoot, it remains elusive. In Pennsylvania, death certificates are not public record. So all we have is this story by Janice Crompton at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. She writes:

Coroner S. Timothy Warco said the official death certificate of Kelly Duane Smith, 42, will list suicide as the manner of death, not justifiable homicide, which is usually how those deaths are classified. It is the first time in 20 years in office he has made such a finding.

"In my opinion, it was suicide by cop," said Mr. Warco of a July 2010 police pursuit that ended in the shooting death of Mr. Smith, of Canonsburg.

Smith's family has a different take. Why, family members ask, didn't police shoot Smith with a Taser or rubber bullets or a fire hose? Whatever it might take to stop a clearly troubled man without killing him?

These questions often are asked in police shootings, and the police invariably have the same answer: they acted quickly and decisively to protect themselves and the public. And that's why these deaths are often ruled as justifiable homicides. (Or, in some cases, manslaughter.) By calling it a suicide, Warco has absolved police of all responsibility.

"This wasn't all the truth," Smith's uncle, David Ledger, told Crompton. "I don't think it was investigated properly."

Ledger has good reason to think that. Smith didn't go looking for a police officer to kill him. He was shot while trying to get away from police officers. Smith's ex-wife told reporters that he was a cocaine addict. He had served time in prison for burglary, theft and receiving stolen property. When police pulled him over, he ran because, as he apparently told his passenger, he did not want to go back to prison. This doesn't make him a good citizen, but it also doesn't mean he necessarily deserved to be shot.

Just consider Smith's actions before his death, as detailed by Paula Reed Ward at the Post-Gazette.

Smith was driving with a woman wanted by police. Police tried to stop his car. Instead of stopping, he put his foot on the gas and led police on a five-mile chase.

The wanted woman dove out of the moving car, and Smith did not stop.

The police threw down tire deflators – known as stop sticks. Smith's tires were blown out, but even driving on rims, Smith did not stop.

He threw drugs out the car window but did not stop.

"As the chase continued, Mr. Smith bumped Officer Rush's car several times, their bumpers locked and the vehicles went over an embankment," Ward writes.

So far, Smith still sounds like a guy who desperately wanted to get away. But then police say that Smith took a gun and pointed at himself first and then at them. "At that, two officers on the scene began to fire. Bullets struck Mr. Smith four times -- three in the chest and once in the hand. He died at the scene," Ward writes. "According to the evidence, Mr. Smith fired his weapon once, but no one is sure who shot first."

That's a convenient fact to elude memory. The police seem to remember everything else. For example, one officer said this about Smith at the coroner inquest:

"There was an eerie calm in his manner He loaded the cylinder with great precision."

This account and other aspects of the police testimony beg more questions than they answer. For example, anyone who has loaded a revolver knows that there is only one way to load a revolver. It loads quite easily, actually. And you can't be imprecise. There's also the question of why a group of armed officers would watch a man load his gun and not take immediate action to stop him. Was there ever any attempt to reason with Smith, or did the situation just get escalated to the point where shots were fired?

All of those questions are erased by declaring that Smith wanted to die and, in effect, deserved to die.

I thought perhaps Washington County had a different set of rules for its coroner. Here's what it says on its website, typos intact:

The Coroner investigates questionable deaths in the couty and completes all autopsies. The Coroner will then rule the cause of deathand the accused will face trial for the crime committed.

I don't see anything in there about blaming the victim. Maybe the police did everything they could to avoid a bad outcome and still ended up shooting someone to death. That's very different from a person deciding to take his own life.

I called Warco, who also helps run a local funeral home, to see about getting some of the records from the inquest, including the death certificate. I'll let you know what I find out.

What do you think about the suicide-by-cop ruling? Let me know at askantidote@gmail.com. Or on Twitter @wheisel.

Photo credit: Kenny Louie via Flickr

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