Effort To Have Bodies Autopsied In Wyoming Dies Without A Vote

Many Wyoming counties contract with out-of-state forensic medical examiner to do autopsies, and seem to like it that way, as a bill that would create a state pathologist position failed to get enough support Monday to advance to a vote.

CM
Clair McFarland

September 18, 20234 min read

Fremont county coroner 9 18 23

Note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the bill refers to a statewide medical examiner, not forensic pathologist.

The Wyoming Legislature’s Joint Judiciary Committee met Monday in Casper to discuss whether Wyoming’s coroners need a state-appointed medical examiner to perform autopsies on the bodies of people who die unanticipated deaths.  

Campbell County sends its bodies to South Dakota for autopsies, while Laramie and Albany Counties send theirs to Colorado, according to committee testimony.  

No committee members moved the bill for a vote after hearing concerns and criticisms of it, making it unlikely that the Judiciary Committee will advance it to the state’s 2024 lawmaking session.  

Erin Ivie, vice president of the Wyoming Coroner’s Association, told the committee that her group opposes the bill.  

Ivie also is the Fremont County Coroner and characterized the bill as inefficient. 

Still in its rough-draft phase, the bill does not contain an appropriation amount, but a staff comment by the Legislative Service Office estimates its biennial cost at nearly $1.5 million.  

Ivie cited a 2007 study by a University of Wyoming research group, which she adjusted for inflation, estimating that the system would cost closer to $3.5 million, swelling autopsy costs from the current high end of $2,000 each to between $7,000 and $8,000 apiece to cover the cost of the new operation.   

“This is a huge undertaking that is going to cost millions of dollars to the state, something that I’m not going to go back and tell the people who elected me that we need when we have access to these facilities already,” said Ivie.  

She said that fewer than two-thirds of Wyoming counties would take advantage of the new office.  

What About Others? 

Fremont County contracts with a retired forensic pathologist, Dr. Randall Frost, who moved in 2020 from Texas to Lander. Frost also performs autopsies for other counties, Ivie said.  

She said Wyoming’s border towns generally have access to forensic pathologists in other states.  

State Rep. Ken Chestek, D-Laramie, asked about other counties that aren’t so fortunate.  

“I understand you object to the bill on the basis of the cost of it, but I’m curious as to, is there an unmet need of some sort that this bill addresses?” he asked. “Is there a problem of getting autopsies right now that this bill might help with?”  

Ivie said the bill would not impact the ability of Wyoming coroners to get “timely” autopsies, adding that autopsies can happen within 24 hours now.  

The only counties Ivie could see benefitting from the bill would be the centrally located Natrona and Sweetwater counties, both among the state’s more populated counties.  

The Sweetwater County coroner takes bodies to Colorado now, Ivie said.  

State Overreach 

“I can tell that Fremont County feels like it’s got things handled. Wonderful,” said Sen. Bill Landen, R-Casper, who chairs the Senate half of the Joint Judiciary Committee. “But I see 14 other counties who have expressed that they think it’s a good idea.” 

Ivie countered again, saying the way the bill is currently written brings too much state government overreach. She also said the new state medical examiner would be closely bound with the Wyoming Division of Criminal Investigation and therefore biased in death investigations.  

“I think you misread the bill,” said Washut, adding that though the medical examiner would perform autopsies at DCI’s request, the Wyoming Department of Health would be the oversight agency for the position.  

Here Jerimiah Rieman, executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association, chimed in, saying many county commissioners have voiced a desire for a more grant-based program incentivizing certain counties to upgrade their facilities and contract with forensic pathologists, rather than a statewide umbrella program.  

County governments hope any state forensic medical examiner would be voluntary, Rieman added, so that counties that like their current examiners can stick with them.  

Franz Fuchs, policy analyst at the Wyoming Department of Health, said later during his testimony that nothing in the current bill draft would preclude counties from taking their business elsewhere.  

Clair McFarland can be reached at clair@cowboystatedaily.com.

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Clair McFarland

Crime and Courts Reporter