Wyoming officials are considering the possibility of hiring two forensic pathologists to conduct autopsies in the state.
Currently, one forensic pathologist – Thomas Bennett out of Sheridan – “really takes on the majority of autopsies within the state,” Wyoming Department of Health policy analyst Franz Fuchs told the legislative Labor, Health and Social Services Committee during a presentation this month.
But Bennett can’t “accomplish the entire workload,” Fuchs said, and 10 counties – including Fremont County – have been working with out-of-state pathologists instead.
“Fremont County does not choose to use Dr. Bennett,” chief deputy coroner Erin Ivie said this week.
In fact, as of July, Fremont County has its own forensic pathologist again: Randall Frost, who initially came to work for the Fremont County Coroner’s Office in 2020 but resigned in 2021 after Larry DeGraw was chosen as the new Fremont County Coroner.
Ivie said Frost decided to return this year after learning that she was running unopposed for the Fremont County Coroner position.
“He agreed to come back to work as long as he worked with me,” she said.
Next year, under a “new administration” in the local coroner’s office, Ivie said Fremont County would be “open to taking additional cases” from agencies throughout the state in need of forensic pathology.
She is also willing to be involved in the conversation about Wyoming potentially hiring its own forensic pathologists, calling it a “great idea to be self-reliant on our state.”
Fuchs said it would cost around $1 million a year for Wyoming to maintain two forensic pathologists, two autopsy technicians and one administrative specialist – but he pointed out that counties would “offset” most of that cost by paying the state for autopsy services.
“The entire office could likely be funded through (that) revenue,” Fuchs said.
He recommended posting both forensic pathologists in Casper, but Ivie said they should be placed “strategically throughout the state (at) easily-accessible locations.”
She noted that, if Wyoming hires its own forensic pathologists, coroners throughout the state might “believe that’s the only pathologist they can use.”
For coroners near the state border, however, it might not make sense to drive “all the way to Casper” when “they can still get good-quality forensic pathology” in neighboring states.
Wyoming Coroners Association president and Natrona County Coroner James Whipps said out-of-state pathologists cost more to use and are slower with results, but Ivie said Fremont County has been using forensic pathologists in the Fort Collins area who charge $1,200 per autopsy – well below Bennett’s rate of $1,800 – and return results quickly.
“They charge significantly less,” she said. “It offsets (our travel costs).”
‘In a real pickle’
No matter what the state decides, Whipps said something needs to change, because Bennett has started “wanting to slow down” and may retire soon.
“That’s going to put us in a real pickle … without having anybody,” Whipps said.
In criminal cases, autopsy information has to come from a forensic pathologist in order to “hold up” in court, Whipps explained, so “if we get to the point where coroners aren’t doing those autopsies, based off the fact that it’s either too inconvenient or they just can’t find people to do it, justice in the end is not going to be served in a lot of these cases.”
“It will end up in court and someone’s going to get off because that autopsy was not done,” he said. “This will become a big issue if we don’t (do) something.”
The Labor committee directed state staffers to write a letter asking the Department of Health to request the funding and authority to hire two medical examiners at the state level.
The committee also asked that a letter be sent to the Board of Coroners requesting that the requirements for forensic pathologists be reviewed and potentially loosened in Wyoming.
Finally, the committee asked that Wyoming coroners and county commissioners be invited to participate in continued discussions on the topic at a future meeting.
The Labor committee’s next meeting is scheduled to take place Oct. 6-7 in Cheyenne.