Montana takes pride in doing a number of things better than others.
In so many ways, that's true.
And, Montana seems to have another way in which it can lead the nation. This is taking a very old idea, and giving it a much needed update.
In a three-part series about coroner's inquests and juries in Montana, Gazette reporter Sam Wilson examined the role and function of the coroner's jury. It's a practice that dates back before statehood. Think of it like a type of open grand jury in which the jurors, selected by a coroner, hear the details of a death and decide whether there is enough evidence to recommend charges to the county attorney, who, by state statute, has the power to charge.
Wilson's excellent reporting showed that sometimes these juries act more like a perfunctory obligation than a true inquest. In other words, coroners present a case, walk through some details, and jurors rarely return any charges. The Gazette's reporting points out that coroners and sometimes a county attorney may be hesitant to really pursue the specifics of a case because those same county attorneys may be called upon to defend the actions of law enforcement officers in civil suits. And, it's hard to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest when the county prosecutor and the law enforcement are on the same payroll.
That being said: We believe that Yellowstone County Attorney Scott Twito and his staff do an excellent job during the coroner's inquest and jury. Nowhere else in the state calls upon these juries more than Yellowstone County.
These juries are not just called when a law enforcement officer kills a person; they happen when there's a death at the jail or even sometimes in the case of another homicide or a car crash. The statute is broad and Twito uses it when there are questions he would like to send to a jury.
We also commend Twito for allowing the families of those who have been killed to participate and ask questions. We've seen this happen several times, and while it certainly can complicate matters, it shows his willingness to be open and transparent. Twito is under no obligation to let this happen.
But others should take his lead, and it's a way the system can be improved.
We should also say that we believe the in the importance of coroner's juries and inquests. We believe that public participation in the process, coupled with the information that is disclosed during these is absolutely vital. If we're truly going to hold our public officials accountable, and know what they're doing -- things the Montana State Constitution guarantees -- then it's absolutely essential that we keep it.
However, we believe the system could also be improved with several significant tweaks to make the system work even better. We hope that lawmakers during the next legislative session take a proactive approach and improve what we already have, so that it becomes a model for other states.
We're lucky to have a system that provides the transparency and information. And the lawmakers have also mandated that records be kept and maintained. That's fantastic.
However, we're worried that because coroners who conduct the inquests must not be from the same county, and that a lot of counties have merged the coroner with other elected positions, that the number of qualified people to lead these important efforts are dwindling.
Also, we're concerned that using county attorneys as legal counsel for such proceedings, especially when they may have to defend the actions of the county employees, puts the office in a tough position of both having to disclose everything, and wanting to limit the legal exposure in such hearings. We believe county attorneys can be transparent, but it's not a fair position.
Instead, we would hope the lawmakers would consider creating a special standing master that would work through a department like the attorney general's office. This standing master would be specially assigned to coroner's inquests and juries. That person would travel throughout the state to conduct these procedures, know what witnesses to call, provide an impartial hearing, and have a background to conduct these. They would ease the burden of the coroners, many of whom have no background on calling and selecting a jury or running a court procedure.
Granted, this idea would cost the state money -- in staffing, coordination and travel. However, we believe that having someone truly autonomous, independent and not affiliated with the individual counties would provide a more efficient, thorough and avoid appearances of conflicts of interest.
We can't think of a more important function in our society than investigating the death of a fellow citizen, whether that's a death from a car accident or a law enforcement officer. If we're serious about justice, we should always be looking to make it better.
We don't believe the cost would be exorbitant. Instead, we believe it would improve it, and possibly make it even better.