Whatever the outcome of the November election, the next coroner of East Feliciana Parish will not be a licensed doctor.
The two candidates are a former sheriff’s deputy and private investigator who now owns a trucking business, and the widow of the former coroner, a nurse who had served as his assistant and has been filling the position since his death in June.
Louisiana coroners wield substantial power. In addition to investigating and classifying suspicious deaths, they are charged with overseeing the collection of evidence in sexual assaults and can hospitalize patients with psychiatric disorders without their consent.
Nondoctors are allowed to seek the office only if no doctors throw their hats in the ring, said Dr. Todd Thoma, Caddo Parish coroner and president of the Louisiana State Coroner s Association. He estimates that around seven of the state’s 64 coroners do not have a medical license.
“You want the most medically knowledgeable person in the investigation,” he said.
Coroners do not report to any statewide agency and are answerable only to voters and the law, Thoma said.
She had been assistant coroner and is campaigning as a Republican to officially take the top job at the Nov. 4 election.
She faces Democrat Joe Howell, owner of Acme Trucking and Feliciana’s Trading Post, a pawn shop, in Clinton. Trained as an EMT, he helped establish an ambulance service for the Iberville Sheriff’s Office in the mid-’70s, spent five years as a physician’s assistant to that parish’s coroner and worked on the side as a licensed private investigator for 25 years.
Between 1983 and 1999, he was a sheriff’s deputy in Walton County, Florida, and Howell said he still holds a commission with the West Baton Rouge sheriff, who can call him up during a disaster like a hurricane.
Trained as a licensed practical nurse, Laura DeJohn began working with Mike DeJohn in 1985 and estimates she has spent a total of about 15 years in the office. After a stint in Alabama, she returned to the Coroner’s Office about 12 years ago, she said.
She and Mike DeJohn married in 2004. In some cases, a governmental executive is forbidden to employ or promote a spouse, but the nepotism restriction does not extend to employees who have held a position for longer than a year before the marriage, explained Louisiana Ethics Administrator Kathleen Allen.
Though the two candidates have followed different professional paths leading up to the election, both are touting their experience. Howell said his background in law enforcement rather than medicine may be a benefit.
“Actually, I see it somewhat as a plus,” he said.
Like other rural offices, the parish coroner already sends bodies for autopsy to forensic pathologists elsewhere in the state, Howell noted. He sees himself responding to the scene of a death and talking to witnesses for information.
Laura DeJohn, 47, said she is experienced with visiting scenes and examining evidence from her years as the assistant coroner. She knows how to perform the administrative duties and file the paperwork associated with the job. She also pointed out that she has worked with both the local and state agencies that participate in investigations, such as police, firefighters and dispatchers.
Mike DeJohn offered training opportunities to staff as well, Laura DeJohn said. One of the areas she studied was mental health, as coroners help decide when a patient can be involuntarily committed.
“I’ve got years of experience going with my husband,” she said.
“I always listen to the patient first,” she said, adding that she always starts evaluations with the question “Why do you think you’re here?”
Howell, 65, said he would rely on statements from relatives of the patient to determine if the subject is a threat to himself or others and to guide his decision based on common sense and input from psychiatrists.
Both candidates point out that the coroner’s opinion can result only in a 72-hour hold and that a psychiatrist must be called in for a second evaluation to guide ongoing care.
Neither candidate offered a specific plan for handling cases of rape, sexual assault or child sexual abuse.
Laura DeJohn said she would work with local law enforcement on the incidents but said she would have to review protocol before speaking to the Coroner’s Office’s specific obligations.
Howell said he would work to contract with female nurses to collect evidence in the cases.
Rather than a medical degree, the candidates are hoping to draw voters on their other qualifications. For Laura DeJohn, it’s her ties to the community and the office.
“I love my job. … Everybody just works together,” she said. “Right now, I think it’s going pretty good. … We need a person that cares, and I’m that person.”
Howell stressed his background working on cases from a variety of angles.
“I got probably more exposure than you can imagine,” he said of his time as physician’s assistant to the Iberville coroner.
“I don’t like to read novels; I like to read laws, investigative stuff. … A lot of people don’t really realize the importance of the Coroner’s Office. You’re the first line of defense in someone getting away with murder.”