In The News › Facilities Bare Bones for Coroner

Sep 30, 2008

Source: New Orleans CityBusiness

Filed under: On the Ballot, Orleans Parish

Facilities Bare Bones for Coroner

Facilities bare bones for coroner
by Richard A. Webster

New Orleans coroner Dr. Frank Minyard walks out the back door of his temporary office, a converted funeral home on Martin Luther King Boulevard.

To the right is a bail bonds agency, to the left a nail salon. Across the street is the renovated, pastel-painted Guste Housing Development.

Minyard is standing in the middle of a small parking lot pointing to three refrigerated trucks. The rumbling drone of the engines makes it hard to hear, so he raises his voice.

“This is where we have to store our bodies now,” Minyard said. “In the back of those trucks. We have to keep them running day and night.”

The coroner used to have two walk-in coolers that could each store 100 bodies before floodwaters destroyed his office in the basement of Orleans Parish Criminal District Court, forcing Minyard to move into the Majestic Funeral Home in April 2006.

Now, when someone is murdered and an autopsy is requested, they are stored in a refrigerated truck.

Minyard said the city told him it’s a temporary situation until he is moved into a permanent location.

Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff Marlin Gusman believes something needs to be done now. The state of the coroner’s office is negatively impacting public safety and criminal investigations, he said.

While the old coroner’s office had a fully operational laboratory to perform toxicology tests, the temporary forensics center doesn’t even have a lab. The city pays between $150,000 and $200,000 a year to send tests to a Missouri firm. This can slow down investigations and result in 701 releases, Gusman said, in which suspects are let out of jail when charges aren’t brought against them within 60 days of their arrest.

The temporary facility is also placing the mentally ill and their families at risk, Minyard said.

The old coroner’s office had a staff of 35 and was open 24 hours a day. Post Katrina, the staff has dwindled down to nine because of budgetary restraints, limiting its hours from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

“If you come here at 6 p.m. to get papers to have a friend or family member committed to take to the hospital, we’ll be closed,” Minyard said. “This is a dangerous area at night and we don’t want people coming here. We have an emergency number they can call. But now instead of meeting at the office, our psychiatrist is meeting people on street corners or in the parking lots of hospitals.”

A $63.2 million bond issue that would support improvements to the New Orleans criminal justice infrastructure goes before the voters Oct. 4. The bulk of the money, $40.9 million, goes to the criminal sheriff, but also included is $5 million for a new forensics center.

“The coroner’s office is a non-factor right now when it should be an important tool in solving homicides and obtaining convictions in a variety of violent crime cases,” said Rafael Goyeneche, Metropolitan Crime Commission director.

“And it’s not for a lack of expertise. Here it is three years after Katrina and they’re still operating out of a temporary facility. They have no resources and as a result it is making it more difficult to obtain convictions in court.”

The cost for a new forensic center is estimated at $7 million. If the bond is passed, FEMA will provide the additional $2 million.

The temporary coroner’s office is 10,000 square feet with two autopsy stations. Minyard said they need 60,000 square feet and six stations.

A Bureau of Governmental Research report called the bond issue “well conceived” but opposes its passage.

“It is evident that the criminal justice facilities require major reconstruction,” the BGR report states. “It is not clear, however, that the specific improvements proposed for the bond issue are the most pressing needs facing the city. In that regard, we note that the infrastructure needs of the community far exceed the local capacity for funding them.”

After reading the BGR assessment, Gusman pointed to a picture of the small, concrete building on Martin Luther King Boulevard.

“What other needs are more pressing than public safety? What can you put ahead of that?” he asked. “We have an opportunity to really make an improvement in the city instead of just restoring what we have.”•

Sep 30, 2008

Source: New Orleans CityBusiness

Filed under: On the Ballot, Orleans Parish

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