Supreme Court upholds Jackson inquest ruling

By Emily Mieure

Jackson Hole News&Guide

Via Wyoming News Exchange

JACKSON — The Wyoming Supreme Court affirmed a decision made in Teton County District Court regarding a May 2017 coroner’s inquest, killing an appeal.

But attorneys for petitioners in the case say the fight isn’t over.

“The inquest verdict is not a judgment,” Justice Kari Gray wrote in the ruling filed Feb. 15.

The justices wrote that the district court properly dismissed the appellants’ motion for lack of subject matter jurisdiction.

“[The coroner] has the same authority to enforce attendance of witnesses and punish for contempt as circuit court judges,” Gray wrote. “The coroner then must return the inquisition, the written evidence, and a list of witnesses to the district court.”

Teton County Coroner Dr. Brent Blue dismissed a motion to set aside the inquest verdict and Teton County District Court Judge Timothy Day affirmed Blue’s decision on the grounds of jurisdiction.

Blue’s dismissal came after Paul Cassidy and Dr. Bruce Hayse filed a motion to set aside the verdict in a 2017 coroner’s inquest that probed the cause of death of Anthony Birkholz, a well-known Jackson Hole artist.

Cassidy, Birkholz’s father, called the proceeding unjust, and Hayse felt unfairly targeted by Blue during the inquest.

They claim misconduct on Blue’s part.

But the justices said those issues should be raised in a different setting.

“Questions raised about the propriety of the process, the lack of fundamental safeguards in an inquisition, and bias in the proceeding can best be addressed by the legislature,” Gray wrote.

The jury in Blue’s inquest of Birkholz’s death concluded that the 31-year-old’s death could have been prevented.

Birkholz died at Hayse’s Jackson house in January 2017 after a night of hard partying, witnesses said.

“I believe in the coroner’s inquest process, and I believe in our verdict in that case,” Blue told the News&Guide on Tuesday. “It’s obvious that coroners are independent and they were meant to be independent to find factual information about death.”

It’s the only time Blue has held an inquest to find someone’s cause of death.

“It’s the only case where we needed to have witnesses sworn in to testify as opposed to just interviewing people because we had witnesses who wouldn’t cooperate,” Blue said.

Under a rarely used Wyoming law, county coroners can call a jury and subpoena witnesses to testify under oath about a death.

Coroner’s inquests were commonly used in medieval times, Teton County Chief Deputy Attorney Keith Gingery said.

“The beauty is [the verdict] imposes no punishment on someone,” Gingery said.

The jury’s official conclusion was that Birkholz’s death was “due to aspiration secondary to alcohol and 5-methoxy-DMT ingestion.”

That verdict is filed with the district court, justices explained in their ruling, but otherwise is not a court matter.

“The filing of these records with the district court does not, without more, confer jurisdiction on the district court,” they wrote.

Cassidy and Hayse aren’t unhappy with just the jury’s verdict. They claim Blue crossed the line during the inquest, and they allege misconduct like misleading the jury, misrepresenting evidence and targeting Hayse.

Frank Chapman, the attorney who represents Hayse and Cassidy, said they’re now planning to go after the Wyoming Board of Coroner Standards.

“They are supposed to have in place methods for handling coroner’s inquests that aren’t handled by law,” Chapman told the News&Guide. “The board is required by statute to monitor and govern the behaviors of coroners.”

Chapman said the coroner’s inquest process is “bastardized.”

He criticized it because there’s nothing in law that allows those involved to appeal the verdict.

“It goes back to the coroner,” he said previously.

In April, Chapman asked the Board of Coroner Standards to investigate Blue’s conduct.

“Because the request falls outside the statutory and administrative duties of this board,” Wyoming Board of Coroner Standards Chairperson Connie Jacobson said, “we must decline your request.”

In an email obtained by the News&Guide, Jacobson said the Board of Coroner Standards exists only to train coroners and make sure they comply with state rules.

“The day-to-day functioning of any coroner or his employees is beyond the purview of the board,” Jacobson wrote. “Indeed, no violation of the rules and regulations of this board have been identified in your request for investigation.”

Chapman believes his clients’ claims are enough for the board to launch an investigation into the Teton County coroner.

“It’s too bad the coroner’s board won’t accept this responsibility,” Chapman said.

The complaint is set to be filed this week, Chapman said.