A day in the life of a coroner

Staff Photo by Teddy Kulmala Aiken County Coroner Time Carlton poses for a photo in the office at which he has worked for the last 24 years.

Bob Dylan once sang that death is not the end.

For Aiken County Coroner Tim Carlton, it's the beginning. His day begins where someone else's day – and life – ended.

Carlton, who has worked in the coroner's office since 1988 and was elected as coroner in 2004, said there are no such things as weekends or holidays in the coroner's office.

“You never know when you're gonna get a call,” he said. “It's never from 9 to 5. Certainly, I knew that coming into this position.”

A typical Monday begins by going over the weekend's cases, which usually total between eight and 17 and can range from homicides to hospice deaths, according to Carlton.

“We're charged by law with investigating all homicides, all accidents, all suicides, natural deaths that occur at home or that the person has been in the hospital for less than 24 hours,” Carlton said, adding that natural deaths require much time because of the information gathering from the deceased's family, doctors and medical history.

“Natural deaths, in a lot of cases, take a lot more time because you have to develop all this information,” he said. “You go to a homicide, most of your evidence is there. A person was shot, stabbed – whatever the mechanism of death was is typically there at the scene. There's no need to get this other information.”

The county coroner is an elected office that investigates the cause, time and manner of deaths. Carlton signs death certificates on violent, sudden and unattended deaths, which includes all homicides, suicides and accidents.

Coroners are often confused with medical examiners. Medical examiners are physicians who have been through medical school and are certified to perform autopsies. Coroners cannot and do not perform autopsies, according to Carlton.

In the Aiken County Coroner's Office, which is located inside the courthouse, are five employees: Carlton, two investigators and two administrative employees.

In 2012, more than 1,200 cases came through the coroner's office. So far this year, more than 600 have been handled by Carlton's office.

Another little known fact about the office of coroner is that he is next in line if the county sheriff dies, is fired or indicted for a crime.

“The coroner is the person who takes over until the governor appoints someone else,” Carlton said. “If he is under indictment, I am the only person who can arrest the sheriff.”

There are certain age and citizenship requirements to be elected coroner. Carlton was first brought on board as chief deputy coroner in 1988. Before that, he was assistant director of public safety for USC Aiken, and also had military medical experience.

Carlton was approached in 1988 by then-Coroner Sue Townsend about becoming her chief deputy.

“I said, 'No way, that is not gonna happen,'” he recalled. “After I met with her, I really got a feel for how compassionate and how motivated she was to be a coroner. It was sort of contagious. Little did I know how important this job is, how in-depth it is and how important it is to the family.”

An autopsy is mandatory in many cases, such as all homicides and the death of anyone under 17, even if the family objects to it, according to Carlton.

“If the person dies suddenly, unexpected without any medical history, depending on their age, we autopsy,” he said. “We have an obligation to the family to understand why the person died.”

If an autopsy is not required, or if the deceased's family wishes to dispute the coroner's findings, a private autopsy may be ordered, which Carlton said his office encourages.

A normal autopsy, including travel time, toxicology, transportation and the autopsy itself, costs about $2,000, according to Carlton. A private autopsy costs about $3,500.

Autopsies are performed in Newberry. One of the investigators from Carlton's office takes each body to Newberry for the procedure, which is normally early in the morning.

“That means my person who has worked all night on this thing has to leave Aiken about 7 a.m. to go up, go see the autopsy ... and transport the body back to Aiken to a funeral home,” he said. “In the course of that 24 hours, you've probably been on the job 17, 18, 19 hours. That's the part people don't see.”

After the autopsy, the investigator returns to Aiken – and now it's time for the paperwork.

The coroner's findings have far-reaching implications, so paperwork must be completed thoroughly and diligently. Nearly a dozen agencies, including law enforcement, the solicitor's office and attorneys, must view the coroner's work in criminal cases. Additionally, his findings have a significant impact on the family of the deceased, including insurance benefits. However, before the papers are signed, before the gavel drops in a trial, before a funeral service is held, and before a body is even autopsied, the family of the deceased must be notified.

After 25 years in this business, Carlton said telling someone their loved one has died doesn't get easier.

The last car wreck he worked, he arrived on the scene about midnight and was there for about two hours. From there, he has to track down the deceased's next of kin.

“You start with what you know,” he said, adding that they often look at the person's wallet and driver's license. Often, someone may be carrying a fake ID, or no ID at all. Or their residential information may not be up to date.

“We spend the good portion of the morning from 1 to probably 7 or 8 driving around the County,” he said. “Kids go out to drink and take their fake IDs with them, obviously not expecting to be involved in a car crash, but it surely challenges us in trying to notify the family.”

The coroner's office can go through a person's car, home and belongings in an effort to identify them or their next of kin, Carlton said.

“Sometimes, it's just a matter of getting on the Internet and googling names, or going on Facebook,” he said.

Carlton said the first thing he does while driving to someone's home to deliver the bad news, is pray.

“I say, 'Lord, comfort me and give me something that I can give this family to make it easier for them,'” he said. “We're in the process of visiting tragedy on this family that is probably going to change their lives.”

In the event of a traffic fatality, state troopers accompany Carlton to the next of kin's home. “When I'm standing there with two Highway Patrol guys, you always know,” he said. “Initially, when they open the door, they have that questioning look on their face, but then all of a sudden there's a realization. When we introduce ourselves, they know. They know the next words coming out of my mouth are not going to be good.”

The coroner and his investigators don't mince words.

“We don't tell them, 'So and so has passed away' or 'So and so is gone,'” Carlton said. “We tell them straight up: They're dead. In that sort of situation, I think people's minds are starting to go wide open. If you say 'passed away' or 'they're gone' or 'they didn't survive,' people don't get that. They don't get it. But if you say they're dead, they get it.”

Carlton said they always sit with the person and talk with them after delivering the news. For one elderly woman who had just heard the devastating news, her nearest family member was in Atlanta.

“I sat with her for three hours, just holding her hand until her son got here from Atlanta,” Carlton said. “I tell them all the time: Treat them like you treat your mama.”

People grieve differently, and according to Carlton, they take the news of death differently too.

Carlton recalled going with state troopers to the home of a Wagener woman whose son was killed in a motorcycle crash.

“She said 'thank you' and closed the door on us,” he said. They knocked again, and the woman allowed them into her home.

Another woman took off running around her garage after learning of her estranged husband's death.

“She just took off running around the garage,” Carlton said. “The brother-in-law says, 'What are we gonna do, coroner?' I said, 'We're just gonna wait until she gets finished.' She made a couple of laps around the garage, came back over and collapsed in front of both of us.”

“Some people are very animated, some people are very quiet,” he said. “And then there are families, sometimes, that almost expect it because of the way that person lived.”

Carlton recalls one of the most difficult cases of telling a parent their child was killed in a car crash. That parent was his boss, former coroner Sue Townsend.

“I didn't think I was ever gonna get to her house,” he said. “It was like I was in slow motion.”

Despite her years of delivering the same news to parents, Townsend herself had the same reaction as other mothers to Carlton being at her door, he said.

“She said, 'What's going on, Tim?' I said, 'I just need to come in and talk with you,'” he recalled.

Carlton said that was one of the “worst” times of his career.

“To tell a lady who dedicated her life to saving young people that her only son was killed in a car crash – I wouldn't say it haunts me, but it had a dramatic impact on my life,” he said. “I've always heard you have to distance yourself from that in order for it not to become intrusive in your life. But I tell my investigators, don't do that. Don't distance yourself from that – be a part of it, because we're human beings, too. We don't want to be the cold guy who goes in there and says, 'Your son's dead. That's the way it is. See you later.' We want to be compassionate about it. We're gonna be a part of their lives, one way or the other. If you mess it up, they'll remember that their whole lives. I would rather them remember you as a person that genuinely showed some compassion for them.”

Teddy Kulmala covers the crime and courts beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012.