Respecting the Dead
How does a research scientist with a background in philosophy end up being elected County Coroner?
by Ann Mary Quarandillo
Photo: Ted Brummond, U. of Wyoming Photo Services
Television forensic investigators have it easy. They find half a fingerprint and a speck of blood, manage to construct an entire case based on that evidence, and wrap it all up in an hour- maybe two if it's a season finale.
The real life of a county coroner is much different.
With television shows like CSI raising unrealistic expectations among juries, a coroner or medical examiner's work has become more challenging than ever. Tom Furgeson '89 has been working to improve investigative standards as County Coroner for Albany County, Wyoming, since his election in 2007. Before that, he served for three years as deputy coroner. In his view, accurate investigation of unattended or suspicious deaths is a matter of respect for the dead and their families.
"There are about as many medicolegal death investigation systems as there are states," he explains. At one end of the spectrum there are large states like California, with a centralized state medical examiner system. At the other end of that spectrum is Wyoming, with its elective county coroner system, which only requires a high school education, residency in the county and a 40-hour training course within a year of taking office. "These rules leave tremendous room for improvement, and that's why I got involved," says Furgeson. As a trained physical anthropologist and research scientist at the Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center, he is uniquely qualified not only to analyze the biological evidence of death, but to put evidence into the context of human behavior.
His own background helps him deal with the unexpected. He came to Evergreen from Virginia, by way of Kenai, Alaska, where he and a friend went to earn money as commercial fishermen. When a fishing strike shortened the season, they flew back to Seattle, but didn't have enough money to make it back to Virginia. Furgeson took a job in the city, and soon took a class with faculty member Mark Levinsky and other Evergreen faculty at Seattle Central Community College. With Levinsky's encouragement (and proofreading help on his application essay), Furgeson moved to Olympia in spring, 1985.
At Evergreen, he studied writing, philosophy, art and theatre, but was always interested in osteology (the study of bones) and forensic anthropology. After graduation, he moved back to Virginia, completed his B.S. in anthropology at James Madison University, and started his own successful retail and Internet mail-order business. However, Furgeson recalls, "When my business was ready to go to the next level, I started to wonder-is this really what I want to do?" He realized that what he really wanted to do was study bones. He chose to earn his M.A. in physical anthropology at the University of Wyoming so he could study with Dr. George W. Gill, a world-renowned expert in skeletal biology.
He started working as deputy coroner in 2004 because he wanted to do more investigatory work in addition to his research at the Survey and Analysis Center. In 2007, when coroner Julie Heggie decided to step down, Furgeson found himself running for his first elected office.
"When I inherited the office it was literally being run out of a Chevy Suburban," he remembers. He was particularly disturbed about the number of coroners who were funeral directors and ran county offices out of private funeral homes-a conflict of interest that was an integral theme of his campaign.
Today, he has built a staff of four deputies and established an official coroner's office in Laramie. He's been active in legislation concerning the coroner's office, and received a federal grant to do a cost-benefit analysis of implementing a medical examiner system in Wyoming. As president of the Wyoming Coroners' Association, he helped establish Wyoming's first-ever minimum coroner investigative standards, signed by Governor Dave Freudenthal in May 2009, and is currently working with the Department of Health to establish an electronic records submission system, and with the Division of Criminal Investigation to improve state toxicology lab capabilities.
It's scientific and technical work, but for Furgeson, it's truly about respecting the dead, and helping the living deal with the unexpected loss of a loved one. "There are a number of offices in Wyoming that aspire to operate at a level of other states-properly investigating cases and finding out what people need to know about their deceased loved ones," he explains. "Most of our coroners want to do their job well. They're underpaid and underfunded, and I want to help ensure they can do their jobs in a way that conforms with the expectations in 2009."
And those expectations are enormously high. Television shows like CSI and NCIS give juries an unrealistic impression of the scientific resources available in most jurisdictions, as well as the idea that every case will have irrefutable forensic evidence. "With the pop culture references, expectations of forensics are through the roof right now," says Furgeson. "Jury expectations are very high for DNA analysis and other terms they hear on these shows." Raising the scientific investigative standards in Wyoming will go a long way towards ensuring people can find the answers they need.
In this job, it's critical to analyze the evidence without being distracted by emotion. Within 24 hours of being sworn in as coroner, Furgeson was already investigating a murder. Most of the questions he gets are about cause of death. "Understandably, families can have a hard time accepting the manner of death," he says. "We try to be as accurate as possible, and sometimes the terminology is confusing, so I work to explain it to them." His method includes sitting down to map out why he came to his conclusion and, using skills he learned at Evergreen, constructing arguments based on both the forensic evidence and other information from police reports and witnesses.
Furgeson has seen graphic and horrific things. "I've seen the worst of it, but I have to look at things from the purpose of what I do-making a legally-defensible statement about the cause of death," he explains. "What bothers me more is seeing the way some of these people have to live. A coroner's case is an unanticipated or unattended death, and most of the time, many of those folks are isolated. I've been in several situations where you can drive by a house every day and not know the everyday, low-key disorder and violence people live in, and that is what is disturbing. And at the coroner's office, we see a disproportionate amount of that."
Furgeson is not sure he'll run again when his term expires in 2011. His research scientist position is already full time, and his coroner duties can add an another 40 or more hours per week. He's accomplished a number of his goals for the office and feels like he would leave it in good shape. But it's hard to stop when you see the work you do making a difference. "I truly enjoy my work as coroner-it's very important, very interesting," he says. "I deal directly with families and try to do right by them, and working with law enforcement and medical personnel to get the right answer is very exciting and very in your face. When I'm involved in a case, I don't even think of what time of day it is. It's definitely not a typical job."