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posted: 9/23/2012 8:00 AM

Lake County coroner candidates offer different skills

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  • Republican Steve Newton, left, and Democrat Thomas Rudd are the candidates running for Lake County coroner.

    Republican Steve Newton, left, and Democrat Thomas Rudd are the candidates running for Lake County coroner.


With incumbent Artis Yancey out of the race because of a primary loss, Lake County will have a new coroner after November's election.

And the two candidates -- Republican Steve Newton and Democrat Thomas Rudd -- couldn't be more dissimilar.

Newton is a former chief deputy coroner who is campaigning on a platform of experience and compassion.

"Having served in the office of coroner for seven years, I have done the job of those I will be in charge of," Newton, of Antioch, told the Daily Herald. "I have firsthand knowledge of the hurdles and hardships they may face, as I have been there."

Rudd is a licensed physician who wants to see the coroner's office abolished and replaced by an appointed medical examiner, akin to Cook County's system. Short of that change, he believes the coroner should be a doctor even though it's not legally required.

"My experience as a medical doctor specializing in pathology, nuclear medicine and medical microbiology, as well as an administrator with organizational skill and business management, will provide excellence in the operation of the office," said Rudd, of Lake Forest.

The coroner's duties

The coroner's office investigates six types of cases, including deaths that are violent, suspicious or involve drugs or alcohol. It's up to the coroner's office to decide how a person died, the circumstances of the death and why the person died.

The coroner is an administrative post, so doctors who specialize in autopsies are on call for those procedures.

The coroner and deputy coroners also have law enforcement powers. If a sheriff dies, the coroner temporarily takes over the job, as Barbara Richardson did when Sheriff Robert H. "Mickey" Babcox died in 1988.

The coroner also is the only county official who can arrest a sheriff.

The road to election

Newton and Rudd won hotly-contested, partisan primaries in March.

Rudd defeated Yancey in the Democratic runoff. Yancey had been appointed last year to replace Democrat Richard Keller, who resigned following a scandal that also cost him his medical license.

Rudd specialized in pathology and nuclear medicine in his medical career, working at Highland Park and Lake Forest hospitals and then at a commercial medical laboratory. He now works as a part-time pathologist and educator.

Newton defeated Gurnee dentist Howard Cooper in the GOP primary.

A Lake County court security officer, Newton had worked in the coroner's office for seven years until he was fired in 2007 by then-coroner Keller.

Keller had accused Newton of having an inappropriate relationship with a fellow employee. Newton later married the woman.

Campaign issues

Newton and Rudd talked about their skills, the responsibilities of the coroner's office and each other in separate Daily Herald questionnaires.

When asked to identify his top campaign issues, Newton, 38, said the coroner should ensure death investigations are handled in compassionate, professional and timely manners.

"This minimizes the hardship placed on the family without sacrificing the thoroughness of a competent investigation," he said.

Newton also stressed the need for the coroner's office to cooperate with other investigative agencies and for the office to cut costs.

An audit of staffing and scheduling would be a good start, he said.

When asked about his top concerns, Rudd spoke of the need to "eliminate the hint of conflict of interest in any and all death investigation cases."

He criticized the coroner's office for "operating as an extension of law enforcement," even though that's established by law, and pledged to make the office more independent.

"I intend to make the office nonpolitical and neutral in its investigation," said Rudd, 66. "The office will be cordial and collegial but impartial with other death-investigation organizations of the county."

Rudd also called for the office to be certified by the National Association of Medical Examiners and said deputies should be licensed by the American Board of Medical-Legal Death Investigators.

Doctor or not?

When asked if the coroner should be a medical doctor, Rudd and Newton expressed contrary views.

Rudd's answer reflected his medical background.

"I have been a physician for over 33 years and have the skill and knowledge of being a medical expert in the cause and effect of diseases," Rudd said. "I have counseled thousands of patients and their families regarding health, disease and death."

That experience, Rudd said, is proof he has the temperament to do the job and interact with the public in times of emergency or personal grief.

"I have made thousands of diagnoses on patients, discussed the disease with them and their families and even performed autopsies of some of them and communicated the findings to their families," Rudd said.

Newton pointed out that state law doesn't require the coroner to be a physician. And even if the coroner is a doctor, as was Keller, he legally can't perform autopsies in his own office.

"The coroner is the administrator of an investigative office," Newton said. "Autopsies are performed and can only be performed by forensic pathologists who are contracted through the county."

Even though Rudd has a medical degree, Newton said he's more qualified to be coroner because he has studied criminal justice and has served the community as both a firefighter-paramedic and deputy coroner.

Additionally, Newton said he has "hundreds of hours of specialized training" in death investigation, evidence handling and storage, homicide investigation and other fields related to the job.

Should office exist?

Rudd is so insistent medical training is needed, he believes the coroner system should be abolished in Lake County and replaced with a medical examiner's office led by a doctor who is appointed, not elected.

"Every major city in this country has a medical examiner's office," Rudd said. "And it should be an appointed office to obtain the best candidate."

Newton disagreed.

Switching to a medical examiner would be costly, he said. More importantly, it would take away citizens' ability to make the choice.

"I think most (people) would agree: If the coroner, or any elected official for that matter, is not fulfilling their responsibility, the public should be able to work toward having that individual removed from office," Newton said.

Voters would need to approve a switch from coroner to medical examiner.

Cook County has the only medical examiner's office in Illinois.

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