MADISON COUNTY, AL (WAFF) - Who will be the next coroner in Madison County? That's up to voters as the June 5th primary approaches.
There are two candidates who want the job, both on the Republican ticket.
David Young has worked in public safety in Madison County for nearly two decades. He currently serves as a Board Member and Assistant Director of The Huntsville-Madison County Rescue Squad, is a 17 year member of the Meridianville Volunteer Fire Department, and is a Nationally Registered Emergency Medical Technician.
He's a graduate of Jefferson State Community College where he obtained a degree in Mortuary Science. His death investigation experience includes his service as Chief Deputy Coroner of Madison County from 2011 through 2015 under Coroner Craig Whisenant.
He works as a funeral director at Spry Funeral Home in Huntsville.
"I think many people don't understand that the coroner's office is an elected position, not an appointed position. Myself and Mr. Berryhill are both very passionate about the coroner's office. You have to know where I come from and where I'm at today. I come from public safety. I spent 17 years in Madison County in public safety and this is kind of a cross for me of the death care industry and my public safety experience," Young said.
He's up against Tyler Berryhill, who is the current chief deputy coroner under his father, Coroner Bobby Berryhill and they have family-owned Berryhill Funeral Home in Huntsville.
Berryhill has completed graduate level study in forensic medicine & related disciplines and is certified by the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators.
"It certifies somebody in the particular field of what a coroner does in the state of Alabama as far as conducting a medicolegal death investigation corresponding with the state medical examiner's office. It's a 2020 mandate pushed out through the National Institute of Justice where every person in the particular field should hold board certification. We expect it from our family practitioners and other medical professionals. We should expect it from the coroner as well," he explained.
Berryhill is also a forensic consultant in the areas of blood stain pattern analysis and forensic toxicology and has investigated more than 2,000 deaths. He's backed by the FOP.
During the campaign Young has been vocal in his belief that the coroner should not be a funeral home owner, like the Berryhills.
"I believe that it's time that we separate the office from any one private business in Madison County. Unfortunately, we have a county office running out of a private business. It's time for that to change. I believe that a rotation system should be widely used in Madison County instead of pulling the deceased to one local facility. I think that's expressed with the endorsements I've received from 9 of 11 Madison County funeral homes," he said.
He called the practice of taking bodies to one establishment "unethical."
"The only time the coroner is responsible for housing a body is if there's a criminal investigation and at that time, the removal is done and the Department of Forensic Sciences takes care of the body once it's delivered to them. The coroner has no reason to remove that body," Young added.
Berryhill countered that by saying that a rotation system could put an added burden on families who just lost a loved one and pose issues in court cases.
The coroner's office handles around 650 death investigations a year and Berryhill says 90 percent of those cases will leave the scene and go to the family's funeral home of choice before coroner personnel arrives.
"The police department asks what funeral home relatives would like them to contact," he said.
With the remaining ten percent of cases that require a coroner to take the body, more than half of them is because an autopsy has to be performed.
"If you have to go to court, how can you testify that there's was no tampering of evidence? A body itself is evidence until an autopsy is completed and any potential DNA has been recovered and all studies completed. If a body is at multiple funeral homes in the county you cannot testify to the security of the evidence and that no one else had access. It's not so much a funeral home designation. It is a place that we have a designated body cooler where we can store the body until it goes to the Department of Forensic Sciences," Berryhill added.
The cases that aren't going to be autopsied that require transport to the body cooler are homeless cases where there's no family to be notified or public roadway deaths such as a car accident.
"Once the police department has made next of kin notification, they inform us which funeral home to contact," Berryhill stated. "They come here, take the body from the coroner's cooler and transport it to the funeral home. There's no expense imparted whatsoever to the families."
With a rotation system, he says families will have to pay a transport fee.
"If it's time for somebody for Huntsville and the funeral home is in New Hope that's next in rotation, the family will have to pay to have the body brought back to a funeral home in Huntsville versus going to a designated coroner's cooler where there is no cost," Berryhill added.
One of the things he's been working on over the past four years is for the coroner's office to receive national accreditation as a medicolegal agency.
"Once we receive that accreditation, it opens us up to potential grant opportunities to increase our equipment that we have for investigating crime scenes and working with police agencies and improving forensics all the way around," Berryhill explained.
Coroner is a unique job and both candidates feel they're qualified for it through their backgrounds, education, and work at local funeral homes. There's no Democratic opposition in the race.
"It's an opportunity to serve the public just like HEMSI and law enforcement. It's in a different category. With death, no one wants to think about it, no one wants to talk about it. It's when the family is at their most vulnerable time and it's important to me that we have an office of integrity and honesty and supporting these families in the most efficient and right way," David Young said.
"Over 650 families will need the services of the coroner each year and it's something that comes without warning. Most of the coroner cases, as you would expect, are sudden, unexpected and oftentimes, violent deaths and they require a unique forensic professional to answer that call," Tyler Berryhill added.
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