Linwood Cartrette, right, at a wreck near Byrdville.
Columbus County has joined much of the rest of the state in a move that may mean a switch from elected coroners to medical examiners (MEs).
Assistant Coroner William Hannah said Linwood Cartrette, who held the coroner’s post here for 33 years, retired at the beginning of the year. Legislative action is required to abolish the office of coroner, unless the office remains unfilled. In either case, the State Medical Examiner’s office appoints MEs to investigate violent or unexplained deaths, including murders, suicides, accidents and other fatalities.
On Cartrette’s retirement Jan. 1, the State Medical Examiner’s office appointed two MEs to assist Hannah in dealing with violent or suspect deaths in the county.
The two new MEs are Jason Fuller, who is a paramedic with the Leland Fire Department, and Joanie Mitchum, a nurse at New Hanover Regional, Hannah said.
“There were very few elected coroners left in the state,” Hannah said. “We were in the final six or eight. It’s just a sign of things changing.”
The state Board of Elections could not confirm how many elected coroners are still on the books statewide. In 2014, eight remained, including Columbus County, according to elections records.
The coroner’s position was once one of the most powerful local elected posts. For more than two centuries, North Carolina coroners had the right to arrest county sheriffs for violating the law, and could, if the sheriff was incapacitated, serve as a county’s top law enforcement officer until the next election.
Modern coroners, however, rarely had the need to exercise such power. Instead, coroners are responsible for declaring a person dead, then performing a limited examination of the remains to determine a cause of death. If necessary, the coroner can send the body to one of the state medical examiner’s offices for further autopsy.
The coroner also has to deal with the family of the victim, Hannah said.
“One of the most important times to be a coroner is also one of the worst,” Hannah said. “You have to be considerate when you’re dealing with a deceased person’s family, and you hand over what personal property they had on their person when they came to you. You have to have a feeling for people, and Linwood has always been especially good at that.”
The state began shifting toward licensed medical personnel to determine the cause of death in 1955, and in 1967, the General Assembly passed a law creating a statewide system of medical examiners. The state medical examiner appoints local MEs for three-year terms, with preference going to “physicians licensed to practice medicine in this State but may also appoint licensed physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses or emergency medical technician paramedics,” according to the General Statute.
State lawmakers have fought to maintain a balance between the local control of a coroner and the professional standards required by medical examiners since the 1970s. In counties with both an ME and a coroner, the medical examiner must notify the coroner so he or she can schedule an inquest to officially examine the circumstances surrounding a death. The inquest is then submitted in writing to the district attorney and the medical examiner.
Due to improvements in investigative techniques, very few coroner inquests have been held in the state since the 1970s, according to Kate Murphy, spokesperson for the state ME’s office.
As the coroner’s office has been transitioned out statewide, Murphy said, MEs have been assigned in their stead. Brunswick County abolished the office in 2012. In Bladen County, Hubert Kinlaw is both the county coroner and the medical examiner for the county.
Hannah said he has met Fuller, “and he seems to be a good man.
“He knows his stuff,” Hannah said. “He seems like he’ll be good to work with.”
Hannah said he has no immediate plans to leave the coroner’s office. He was Cartrette’s assistant for 22.5 years, he said.
“Linwood has always been good to work with, and I think we’ve both tried our best to help the people of this county,” he said. “As long as I can, I want to keep on helping.”