Coroner lawsuit challenges district attorney’s letter and authority

A letter from Blount County District Attorney Pamela Casey to Blount County Coroner John Mark Vaughn has led to a civil suit in Blount County Circuit Court.

The Feb. 10 letter from Casey outlines to Vaughn the procedure for handling a body at a potential crime scene. She states that “no tests, biopsies, or samples shall be taken from or performed on a body prior to its arrival at the Alabama Department of Forensic Sciences. If the District Attorney approves an autopsy request, the body must arrive at the Alabama Department of Forensics in the exact same manner as it was at the time the body was removed from the potential crime scene.”

“Filing a lawsuit was not my choice,” said Vaughn, “but I owe a duty to the people of Blount County to make sure that the Coroner they elected remains free and independent.

“Recent actions by Blount County DA Pamela Casey have left me no choice but to seek legal relief from Ms. Casey’s illegal efforts to control the Coroner’s Office, and dictate how I do my job as Blount County Coroner.”

Casey cites state law in her letter that clarifies the coroner’s authority. From an opinion from the Attorney General’s office to the Eufaula city attorney dated Nov. 26, 1991, (A.G. No. 92-00070) “…While the coroner must work closely in conjunction and cooperation with other law enforcement officials who are investigating the crime scene, his authority is secondary to that of the district attorney and the law enforcement officials who are investigating the crime for the district attorney. The coroner must defer to the requests or orders of the district attorney and those law enforcement officials who are investigating the crime scene. The coroner may not move the body or otherwise disturb the crime scene until the district attorney or his law enforcement officials have indicated to him that to do so would not disrupt their investigation. To rule otherwise would create the possibility that the movement of the body would destroy evidence, prevent accurate investigation, or compromise the crime scene.”

Stan Glasscox, Vaughn’s attorney, said in a statement, “Ms. Casey’s letter is, plain and simple, an illegal and unconstitutional power grab. Ms. Casey was elected the Blount County District Attorney, not the Blount County Coroner; a fact she apparently forgot when she wrote her letter. If she wanted to be Coroner she should have run for the job.”

Vaughn’s lawsuit asks that a judge declare the letter is “not grounded upon any authority granted or given to her as Blount County District Attorney and that any and all efforts by Casey to exercise any supervisorial authority or control over Vaughn are utterly inconsistent with, and a violation of, the doctrine of separation of powers.”

Casey had not yet seen the lawsuit Monday night. She said in a statement to, “Based on numerous circumstances surrounding instances occurring with the Blount County Coroner, I took this step (of sending the letter) to protect the interests of all Blount Countians. All other details and any further information, will need to come from the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, who will be defending this lawsuit.”