Former coroner discusses protocols for dealing with accidental deaths

Published: Sep. 16, 2021 at 7:19 PM EDT
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HAMPTON COUNTY, S.C. (WTOC) - WTOC’s investigative team continues to follow the death of Gloria Satterfield.

We’re digging into what all a coroner’s role is and isn’t.

WTOC first reached out to former Hampton County coroner, Ernie Washington, Sr, plus the current county coroner, Angela Topper - both declined to speak to us. WTOC then talked to the Executive Director of the South Carolina Coroner’s Association, Gary Watts.

Gary Watts says the coroner and solicitor can order an autopsy regardless of the family’s wishes. If the coroner feels an autopsy isn’t necessary, then they don’t have to fill the family’s request for an autopsy.

“We would tell the family we didn’t have to do the autopsy. We would tell the family if they wanted to get one done, we’d give them several alternatives of who can do it for them but it’s something they would have to pay,” Watts said.

Gary Watts says coroners handle suspicious deaths, deaths outside a medical facility, deaths that occur in a medical facility within 24 hours of admission, or deaths in a medical facility if the person was admitted due to suspicious or unnatural causes.

That lines up with what WTOC found on Hampton County’s website, which specifically says the coroner is supposed to investigate by law if a death is accidental.

Watts says typically a death like Satterfield’s, a trip and fall, would be accidental.

“You’d have to document the injuries. I would say in a case like that you’d want to do an autopsy to see what the actual cause of death,” he said.

WTOC received a copy of Gloria Satterfield’s death certificate. The cause of death was acute subdural hemorrhage and an ischemic stroke, the manner of death was listed as natural.

When a death is listed as natural, Watts says a coroner doesn’t have to be notified and an autopsy isn’t legally required.

Again, the current Hampton County Coroner, Angela Topper, sent a letter to SLED saying the coroners’ office wasn’t notified about Satterfield’s death, nor was an autopsy done back in 2018 when Ernie Washington was the coroner. WTOC also found out Thursday that the current Hampton County Coroner was the deputy coroner at the time of Satterfield’s death.

You can find a full timeline of the Murdaugh case below:

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