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After 40 Years, New Orleans Will Pick A New Coroner

Eve Abrams
On the campaign trail, Dr. Jeffrey Rouse explains to Anne Gisleson that the coroner's office is in charge of mental health commitments and sexual assault examinations in adition to conducting autopsies.

Pop Quiz: Which New Orleans official was first elected to office in 1974 and has been reelected to that same office nine times, serving a total of 40 consecutive years on the job? Here’s a hint: the office is in charge of mental health commitments, sexual assault examinations, and... classifying the dead.

If you guessed Frank Minyard, the Coroner of New Orleans, you are right. But, for the first time in four decades, Mr. Minyard will not be on the ballot this Saturday. We take a look into who is vying to become New Orleans’ next coroner.

“I don’t know if I could have even spelled the word coroner when I first started,” says Frank Minyard, who was 37 years old with a very successful OBGYN practice when he started thinking more about community medicine.

Minyard noticed how drug use was becoming rampant, and he opened a methadone clinic for women trying to quit a heroin addiction. When one of his patients was arrested for shoplifting, Minyard asked the official in charge of prisoner health, the coroner, if he could bring his patient her daily methadone dosage while she was in jail. That coroner said no.

“He said once a dope fiend, always a dope fiend. He said, 'I don’t like dope fiends,' and that was it,” Minyard recalls.

“I said, 'Excuse me sir: Who’s your boss?' He said, 'I don’t have one.' I say, 'Well, how you get this job?' He said, 'I got elected.' I’m thinking: what does that mean — he got elected? I walked out of the office, I asked a guy what does it mean when someone gets elected? You know, elected: people vote on it. I said: 'Oh yeah.' So I went back up the steps and I got in his office and I said: I’m going to run against you.”

Once Minyard won, he kept winning. And now, like the young doctor he once was, many people aren’t aware the coroner is an elected position.

“For so many years it seemed like it was under the radar,” says Anne Gisleson. “For people who are from New Orleans, you never thought about the coroner. One of the reasons because Minyard has been there for 40 years.”

Gisleson recently met one of the candidates for the office she’s just now learning about. Dr. Jeffrey Rouse circulated the room, introducing himself and shaking hands. “Thank you for coming. It’s somewhat difficult to get people to show up to meet and greets when you’re coming to meet with the coroner.”

For now, Dr. Jeffrey Rouse is the Chief Deputy Coroner. He’s also a board certified forensic psychiatrist who’s worked in the coroner’s office for a dozen years, running its mental health arm for eight of them.

“We actually conduct more psychiatric evaluations a year than we do autopsies,” says Rouse.

After Hurricane Katrina, Rouse resumed his job at the coroner’s office without pay to help ensure the city’s mental health patients could receive some semblance of care. Rouse even put his cell phone number in the paper so families could contact him. Since then, he’s built the office back to a staff of four.

“Myself and the psychiatrists that work for me run around this city making sure people get the care they need and that their confinement is legal and respects their civil rights.”

Rouse says the coroner’s office currently resembles a DMV more than a medical office. He wants to transform it to place where people get answers and where grief counselors assist families in healing.

“Nobody comes to the coroner’s office when things are going well,” says Rouse. “If you’re showing up at the coroner’s office, it is likely the worst day of your life.”

“I think the coroner’s office has been less than open,” says Dr. Vincent Culotta, an OBGYN, who, like Rouse, is a native New Orleanian running for Coroner. Culotta says he wants to improve the office’s transparency, and its science. Like Rouse, Culotta also wants to increase the office’s ability to self-generate revenue.

“Right now DNA testing is not being done in the coroner’s office; it’s being sent to state lab which can take 10, 12 weeks. And if that evidence is exculpatory, you might be waiting in jail for that evidence to come back,” says Culotta. “One of the plans we would implement is put that kind of service as a federally and state qualified laboratory service. And then, once we are doing it for our citizens, we then can do it for other parishes that don’t have that capability, and then get more revenue coming in.”

The coroner’s office has been plagued by budget constraints. Frank Minyard says he’s been unable to convince the city council to give the office more money, but Vincent Culotta says, if elected, he can “put together a solid analysis of our strengths, our weaknesses, our opportunities, the threats. Put together a solid business plan, then put a budget to that plan, then go to the city council and ask for that budget.”

“There has been a pattern of abuse in the coroner’s office that the city can no longer tolerate,” says Dr. Dwight McKenna, the third candidate for coroner.

Dr. McKenna is a retired surgeon who maintains a general practice in his hometown of New Orleans. He says he’ll bring honesty and attention to detail to the office. McKenna promises to get death certificates signed appropriately and to provide families of the deceased with the information they need in order to have closure. This is Dr. McKenna’s third run for coroner.

“I’ve tried for years to expose the office for what it was,” says McKenna. “I believe had I not been persistent in trying to expose all of the egregious abuses of the office we would not be here today.”

The day is quickly approaching when Frank Minyard, whose campaign poster famously showed him playing trumpet on the levee, finally retires. Now Minyard, at 84, hopes to get back to music. After all, he says, “I don’t think I could have been elected for 40 years if I didn’t play music.”

The primary election for coroner is Saturday, February 1. A run-off, if necessary, is scheduled for March 15.

Eve Abrams first fell in love with stories listening to her grandmother tell them; it’s been an addiction ever since.