Following a KATC inquiry, the president of the Louisiana State Coroner’s Association is planning to request an Attorney General’s opinion about a practice by most coroners across the state: allowing for the cremation of homicide victims.
In the weeks after we started asking questions, legislation has been proposed to change the law.
According to Louisiana Revised Statute 13:5716:
If the cremation of a body is requested, the funeral director shall immediately notify the coroner who has jurisdiction in the death. If, after the necessary investigation, the coroner is satisfied that there are no suspicious circumstances surrounding the death, he shall issue a permit for cremation. If the investigation reveals suspicious circumstances or the reasonable probability of the commission of a crime, the coroner shall deny the permit.
KATC Investigates uncovered between 2013-2018, at least 895 cremation permits were issued for homicide victims. The permits were granted in 56 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes including nearly every parish in Acadiana.
“To me it seems obvious cremating the body is like lighting the scene on fire,” said Kathryn Simpson whose mother, Kimberly Womack, was found dead in her False River home in 2008.
Simpson and other family members say they were initially told by investigators that Womack slipped and fell.
“I found out it was a homicide two days after we had her cremated,” said Simpson. “It was devastating, absolutely devastating to know that I had just destroyed the only possible evidence that could solve the case. It was insulting that they allowed me to do that.”
The family provided KATC with a copy of Womack’s death certificate. The coroner wrote Womack suffered blunt force trauma to the head by assault, which caused a left-sided subdural hematoma. The coroner also noted she suffered from multiple fractured ribs.
The death certificate lists the death as a homicide, it was issued on August 4, 2008. That same day, the coroner signed a cremation permit.
Given state law (If the investigation reveals suspicious circumstances or the reasonable probability of the commission of a crime, the coroner shall deny the permit.) We reached out to the Pointe Coupee Parish Coroner’s Office for comment. We asked: did the office violate this statute? If so, why?
Ty Chaney, the chief investigator for the Pointe Coupee Parish Coroner’s Office responded simply, “no.”
“Why would we destroy evidence when we don’t have to,” questions Simpson. “I don't think you need a degree or experience in criminal justice for that to be obvious.”
Kimberly Womack’s death is still an open homicide investigation. Her daughter worries that some evidence-- and the opportunity for a strong case-- was cremated along with her mother.
“In the end she was robbed of her life, but also justice for her murder,” said Simpson.
Coroner’s Association Declines Comment; Legislation Filed
Since the issue is so widespread across Louisiana, KATC reached out to Dr. William “Beau” Clark, the president of the Louisiana State Coroner’s Association. Dr. Clark, who is also the coroner in East Baton Rouge parish, declined an interview but indicated he would be seeking an Attorney General’s opinion for clarity on the law.
“It is my intention as the President of the Louisiana State Coroner’s Association and the East Baton Rouge Coroner to get a directed attorney general’s opinion on this matter. Once, I have received this opinion and reviewed it, I will be happy to discuss this further.”
-E-mail from William “Beau” Clark, January 30, 2020
More than one month after Clark’s statement to KATC, the Attorney General’s office has still not received a request for an AG opinion from Dr. Clark.
Data shows between 2013 and 2018, Clark’s office has issued at least 100 cremation permits when the cause of death was listed as homicide.
In the weeks since we started asking questions, a Baton Rouge lawmaker has proposed legislation to change the state law.
Senate Bill 137, proposed by state senator Franklin J. Foil, would amend R.S. 13:5716:
“If the investigation reveals suspicious circumstances or the reasonable probability of the commission of a crime, the coroner shall deny the permit. After completion of the coroner's investigation, he shall issue a permit for cremation.”
Cremation isn’t Always an Option for Homicide Victims
Data from the Department of Health shows not all coroners issue cremation permits when the cause of death is listed as homicide.
“When you have suspicious circumstances or the reasonable suspicion of the commission of a crime, the method of disposition should be burial and not cremation,” said Yancy Guerin, the chief investigator for the West Baton Rouge Parish Coroner’s Office.
Guerin says the West Baton Rouge Parish coroner’s office will not issue cremation permits when the cause of death is homicide.
“That’s the law,” said Guerin. “I didn’t write the law, but I did take an oath to uphold the law.”
With the cost of traditional burial significantly higher than cremation, Guerin says his office has been criticized by families of homicide victims, who say the law presents an unfair burden.
“We sit down with them and explain the law. It's our duty to deny the permit in certain cases. We also tell them they can get assistance through the crime victim reparation fund,” said Guerin. “If you have someone who has been arrested and going to trial for murdering your loved one, the last thing we want to do is have the evidence destroyed to where they can get set free.”
Guerin says he isn’t worried about speaking out against some of his colleagues.
“I think it’s more of a risk for the people out there who are not following the law,” he said.
“If they’re going ahead and cremating, they’re going ahead and violating the statute,” said LSU Law professor Ken Levy, who believes the intent of the law is to preserve evidence.
“There may be situations where there was a homicide and the coroner makes a mistake,” said Levy. “Sometimes they need to revisit evidence. If the body’s gone-- they can’t do that.”
In January an investigator in the East Baton Rouge coroner’s office made a high-profile mistake by incorrectly classifying a homicide as an accidental drug overdose. The mistake only surfaced when the funeral home found a gunshot wound on the victim while preparing the body for services. The investigator was issued a letter of reprimand.
"We must pause and imagine what could have become of this if the family had requested a direct cremation," Shane Evans, chief of investigations for the East Baton Rouge Parish Coroner's Office, wrote in the letter of reprimand obtained by The Advocate.
“It’s in the interest of both parties, prosecution and defense to keep the evidence,” said Levy, who thinks the law itself may need a second-look.
Levy points to the line “If, after the necessary investigation, the coroner is satisfied that there are no suspicious circumstances surrounding the death, he shall issue a permit for cremation.”
“There’s some gray area, it’s not exactly clear what the ‘suspicious circumstances’ are,” said Levy. “Is it suspicious that they have a bullet wound, or is the suspicion resolved because we know they likely died from the bullet?”
If the intent of the law is to preserve evidence, it also begs the question- what evidence can be obtained from a body that has been embalmed and buried?
“If you exhume a body that has been embalmed, it’s harder to find evidence, but you can still recover some,” said Chris De Lay, who teaches criminal justice and forensics courses at The University of Louisiana at Lafayette.
De Lay says the cause of death isn’t always obvious during an initial exam and more evidence can be gathered by exhuming a body. Take cases of strangulation.
“The bruises may not show immediately, it may take a week for bruises to manifest themselves,” said De Lay. “If there are no bruises, then you would not know there had been a strangulation. The only way you could tell is if the hyoid bone is broken.”
Calls for Accountability
Given the law, East Baton Rouge investigator Yancy Guerin is questioning why others are allowing homicide victims to be cremated.
“We have a valid statute on the books, '' he said. “As a public official if we fail to do our duties it’s malfeasance in office.”
UL forensics professor Chris De Lay says the issue raises another concern for coroners across the state: oversight.
“There is no oversight,” he said. “Coroners are elected officials and as such, they are only responsible to the voters. That’s it.”
Some in the industry agree.
“If you’re not upholding those laws, then what else are you not doing,” questions Guerin.