Coroner Beau Clark doubled down Tuesday on his assertion that he’s responsible for collecting evidence from sexual assaults in East Baton Rouge Parish after a new attorney general clarification stating that it is his duty.
In an annual report delivered to the Chamber of Commerce of East Baton Rouge, Clark reported that taking over sexual assault examinations is one of his priorities for 2015. The coroner has been pushing for months to be the one to collect forensic evidence as his office is required to do so by state statute.
Mayor-President Kip Holden’s administration is balking at providing the Coroner’s Office with the $490,000 Clark says he needs to hire a team of specialized sexual assault nurses.
William Daniel, the city’s chief administrative officer, said he and other city leaders don’t agree with the coroner’s push to take over sexual assault examinations. He added that an attorney general’s opinion is not a binding order that the city must abide by.
The state law Clark points to has long been ignored and local hospital staffers usually examine sexual assault victims in the parish. The Attorney General’s Office issued an opinion at Clark’s request in January that indicated the coroner was responsible for evidence collection. However, it said nothing could stop hospital workers from also examining sexual assault victims.
A newly issued clarification to that opinion makes it clear that the job of examining sexual assault victims and collecting evidence rests with Clark and employees of his office.
“The law mandates that the coroner undertake examinations of such victims when the matter is ‘under police investigation,’ and that such examinations should include the collection of forensic evidence of the crime,” reads the clarification from Attorney General Buddy Caldwell’s office.
Clark said he will now approach the city-parish leaders and ask them to give his office the money it needs to hire specialized sexual assault nurses. He had asked for the extra $490,000 from the city-parish for his 2015 budget, but that request was denied.
The Coroner’s Office received $2.2 million from the city-parish’s general fund for 2015.
Female sexual assault victims older than 14 are referred to Woman’s Hospital, where board-certified OB-GYNs are on staff to treat them. Hospital staffers have stood by what has been deemed a high standard of care for examinations and evidence collection at Woman’s Hospital.
District Attorney Hillar Moore III said in the past that it is it better to have a medical doctor testify as an expert witness instead of a nurse.
Daniel said the system in place now works well.
“We have the best care possible and it’s a perfect example of a public private partnership and we think it’s working better here than maybe anywhere else in the country,” Daniel said.
He added that Woman’s Hospital pays for many of the program’s costs.
Clark envisions a system in which four specially trained nurses would go to wherever the sexual assault victims are around the clock to examine them and collect evidence. As a former emergency room doctor, he said the doctors are often too focused on other patients suffering from critically serious gunshot wounds, stab wounds and other problems.
Victims of sexual assault can easily become moved to the back burner in that mindset, Clark said, though their situation is just as critical. He called the bodies of sexual assault victims “biological crime scenes” and said evidence is lost with every minute that ticks by.
Clark outlined his other plans for this year on Tuesday, saying he wants to focus on infant deaths, heroin deaths, mental health and synthetic marijuana problems this year.
Clark said he wants to work with hospitals and new parents to educate them about safe sleeping environments for babies. He said there were 15 infant sleeping deaths in 2014, an increase from eight the previous year.
Such deaths can occur when a baby sleeps in a bed with another person or has items in his or her crib that do not belong there, he said. And they are fully preventable.
Baton Rouge also saw a dip in the amount of heroin-related deaths in 2014 after an influx of the drug was seen in 2013. Heroin deaths dropped to 28 in 2014, down from 34 deaths the previous year.
But heroin deaths are still far higher than before the drug entered Baton Rouge at high rates in 2013, as only five deaths related to the drug were reported in 2012. Clark said he expects heroin death rates to continue to decline because the Legislature cracked down last year on penalties for heroin dealers.
Clark echoed many East Baton Rouge Parish leaders in calling for better mental health facilities in the city, which he said has reached a state of emergency since last year’s closure of Earl K. Long Medical Center in the northern part of the parish.