IN YOUR OWN WORDS: Reporting the coroner’s inquest

By Stephanie A. Morrow

The typical scene of an inquest begins with the gallery abuzz with energy, as news reporters and members of the public find empty seats; video cameras and photographers line the walls. The decedent’s family members and attorneys enter the room, sitting front row, center.  Law enforcement officers begin filling the remaining empty chairs and benches. The prosecutors make their appearance and the coroner welcomes the small seven-man jury that has just been escorted into the room by a court bailiff.

A large flat screen television sits just to the right and slightly behind me, ready to display evidence recorded of the death of the individual.  My steno machine and laptop sit in the front of the courtroom, ready for the coroner’s inquest to begin.  Just as we are ready to start, my nerves fire and my heart races with anticipation of the first words to be spoken for the day, as the words usually come rapid-fire until the proceeding settles into its own pace. My fingers feel like sticks, just as they did in school when I knew I was about to pass a speed test.  For some reason, those first few minutes of an inquest are the hardest.  Then I breathe and try to relax.  I remind myself I am preserving testimony no different than any other day of reporting; it’s my responsibilities of the day that are somewhat different than my average day in court.

There is no judge to help maintain order in the courtroom. With a room packed full of onlookers, jury members, the prosecutors, and coroner, not only do I have many people to keep track of and identify, but there are also multiple people I need to control if things get out of hand.  I equate the coroner’s inquest to a combination of a trial, deposition, and public hearing.

The coroner’s inquests of Montana are an unusual public proceeding.  Inquests are an examination into the cause and manner of death of an individual, and they are utilized to help determine whether that death was caused by criminal means. Unlike a trial, where someone has already been charged with taking the life of another individual, an inquest can be utilized, in essence, as a public advisory opinion as to whether criminal charges should be filed. Coroner’s inquests are often conducted when a death is unattended or caused by another, and they are required when someone dies in the custody of a police officer, even if the cause of death is by natural means. Ultimately, the decision to file charges remains with the prosecutor.

Jack Healy authored A More Public Opinion for Investigating Shootings by Police Officers, which was published in the “New York Times” on March 17, 2015, just days after the conclusion of an inquest I reported, relating to an officer-involved shooting in Missoula. The coroner’s inquest referenced in Healy’s article was conducted at a time when much of the nation was in an uproar over other officer-involved shootings that occurred across the country.

In his article, Healy characterized the coroner’s inquests of Montana as an old-time process that was more prevalent during the times of Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday.  That reference, in reality, is not far from the truth, at least here in Montana. For example, in 1893 a coroner’s inquest was held for the officer-involved shooting of a man named Samuel “Sam” Shermer. Detective Chris Shermer with the City of Missoula Police Department is the descendant nephew of Sam Shermer. Recently, Detective Shermer shared with me his collection of documents and articles related to Sam Shermer’s crime, capture, and death.

In 1893, Sam Shermer plotted with Jack White, Jack Chipman, and Charlie Jones to engage in a train robbery.  On August 26, 1893, the group of outlaws successfully robbed a train of the Great Northern Railroad outside of Greycliff in south central Montana.  They escaped capture and fled towards the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Northwestern Montana.  The group made off with approximately $5,000 worth of loot (estimated value today would be $136,000).  It is believed they may have stashed a portion of the stolen items somewhere along their escape route.

On October 4, 1893, Shermer, Chipman, Jones, and a man named Jimmy Moots (who replaced White along the escape) were located by U.S. Marshal Samuel Jackson in an area now considered part of Glacier National Park.  There, a shootout with law enforcement ensued.  Chipman was killed instantly, Moots received a superficial wound, and Jones escaped and was later killed in an unrelated incident.  Shermer was shot in the hip, captured, and taken to the jail in Demersville, Mont. (a railroad boom town of 1,000 people with 100 saloons and drinking establishments).  Shermer died in custody on October 8, 1893, and was subsequently buried at the Demersville Cemetery in an unmarked grave.

Among Detective Shermer’s collection of documents was the testimony from Sam Shermer’s coroner’s inquest.  I couldn’t quite determine how the record was kept during those days, as the testimony seemed to be short paraphrased recitations.  However, knowing that an inquest process was conducted over 120 years ago, similar to the way it is conducted in Montana today, was certainly intriguing.  When reading the record from Shermer’s inquest, I felt a strange connection to the past and the scribe who preserved the record of those proceedings.  I wondered, Did the scribe at that time have the same duties to swear witnesses, mark exhibits, maintain order in the courtroom, and preserve the record as I do?

During the inquests of today, the coroner presides over the inquest, maintaining the flow of the proceedings and instructing the jury on the law.  The prosecutor calls witnesses and conducts the questioning.  Once the prosecutor has finished with his or her questioning of a witness, the coroner and members of the jury are permitted to ask questions of the witness, followed by questions from the public, many of whom are posed by the deceased’s family. Public questions are submitted in writing to the prosecutor, who then questions the witness on the civilian’s behalf.

Maintaining control of the proceedings during questioning by the jury is sometimes challenging.  During the jury’s examination, it is not uncommon for me to set ground rules, such as identifying themselves each time they speak and speaking one at a time.  After my instruction, most jurors are very conscious of the record and follow through nearly every time, which is much appreciated.

I recently had the privilege of working with a prosecutor, sheriff, and coroner in Superior, Mont., in conducting their first inquest involving another officer-involved shooting.  Whenever I report in Mineral County, it feels as though I am stepping back in time.  The courthouse is a historic brick building; old-time photos line the hallways, turn-of-the-century law books rest on shelves in the judge’s chambers, and the courtroom is small and the acoustics are poor.  I sit at a small antique desk with the jury box only a few feet in front of me.

Working with this particular group was a great opportunity for me to assist them, based on my years of experience, and establish myself as someone they could rely on for guidance in conducting their first inquest — at least from a record and reporter standpoint.  In preparation for the inquest, I provided the prosecutor with a copy of a transcript from an inquest I had previously reported in Missoula County, which had been presided over by an experienced civilian coroner from another county.  My hope in providing that information was to aid the prosecutor and coroner in conducting their first inquest efficiently and effectively.

The prosecutor did a superior job, and the proceedings ran smoothly.  However, at one point during that inquest, when examination was opened to the jury, I had three or four jurors attempt a “roundtable” discussion, rather than a question-and-answer session, with an expert witness.  Their excitement in chatting about ballistics was annihilating the record-making process.  I promptly, yet politely, set some strong ground rules for questioning the witnesses and speaking one at a time.  The level of respect for me and the job I was doing shifted entirely, and the rest of the hearing proceeded in a very systematic fashion.

As one can imagine, coroner’s inquests center around the serious and often gruesome subject matter that can be involved with the death of human beings.  Some inquests offer a rare and rather macabre insight into the last breath taken by a decedent.  The jury is required to examine the “body” of the deceased person.  Today, that is done through photographic and video evidence rather than viewing the actual body, as was reportedly a practice of the past.  I have witnessed, via video recordings, inmates hanging themselves in the detention facility, a woman having an alcohol-induced grand mal seizure, a shooting of a man outside a Missoula strip club, and other incidents, each resulting in the death of an individual and the need to conduct a coroner’s inquest.

Coroner’s inquests are definitely a challenge, not only in preserving the record and in keeping order over so many individuals, but also from the psychological aspect of observing and listening to such emotional subject matter. Regardless, to me, it is always an honor knowing that I am charged with guarding a very unique record on behalf of the decedent, his or her family, as well as the officer, civilian, or entity (e.g., detention facility) involved when the death occurred.  Whenever I am presented with the opportunity to report a coroner’s inquest, I never hesitate to accept. Conceivably, the record I preserve of an inquest today may be read by a family member of the deceased 100 years from now.

Stephanie A. Morrow, RPR, is an official court reporter in Missoula, Mont. She can be reached at sa.morrow@hotmail.com.