What the coroner does
The duties of the coroner can be traced back to 12th century England. In those days the coroner not only had the duty of determining the manner of death but also had authority over the estate of the deceased. As time passed those duties became the domain of the Inferior Courts. In colonial America the duties of the coroner have always mainly pertained to issues concerning the deceased. The coroner is unique in that the duties encompass three areas — judicial, law enforcement and medical-legal investigation.
In Georgia the office of the coroner in each county is an elected position. Primarily the duty of the coroner is to determine both the cause and manner of death. The coroner has at his or her disposal the Georgia Bureau of Investigation Division of Forensic Science. The GBI-DOFS operates the state crime lab. In cases that are criminal in nature the coroner works closely with local law enforcement. In Georgia the coroner becomes the sheriff in case of a vacancy in that office. The coroner has the authority to hold a judicial inquest if one is so justified and requested by a family or law enforcement.
Dixon says her office investigates the death of any person who doesn’t have a doctor so she can sign the death certificate. The coroner also has to help investigate all deaths caused by accident, homicide, suicide, anything that’s criminal-related.
“Normally we leave the investigation up to the investigators from law enforcement,” Dixon said, “but we’re there to assist them in any way we can. It’s a lot that we have to do, a lot of paperwork. You see my desk? I’m searching medical records now on a lady the doctor won’t sign the death certificate for, so now it has come to me and I’ve got to go through the medical records and try to get with the doctor and find out why she died.”
That sometimes means sending the body to the state crime lab for an autopsy and toxicology report that determines the cause of death.
“We’ve got some good people here,” Dixon said of the law enforcement personnel in Whitfield County. “We all work well together. That’s the reason we can work a case and everybody’s happy and we can come to a conclusion on the cause of death because you’ve got to work together. You can’t do it by yourself. There’s no way either of us could do it by ourselves if we didn’t have the investigators — the detectives from the city and the detectives from the sheriff’s department.”
Law enforcement investigators aren’t required on all cases. “If we go out on a call, say we’ve got an 86- or 90-year-old lady that’s more or less age has just got her and she has a doctor, we go ahead and pronounce her and then call the doctor to see if he’ll sign the death certificate,” Dixon says. “Most doctors sign them for older people if there was no evidence of anything being wrong — the doors were locked and she just died in her sleep, for example.”
If Dixon suspects a death may be criminal, she’ll call and ask for a detective to investigate.
“Murder investigations — that’s a totally new ball game,” she says, “because you’ve got so many people involved. Most of the time if we’ve got a murder involved, they get the GBI in here and then they do the investigation and then we follow up.”
Being coroner is a seven-day-a-week, 365-day-a-year job, but fortunately Dixon has three deputy coroners who help her.
“We try to send the one who is closest to a call,” Dixon explains. “That way we don’t hold up the fire departments or sheriff’s department or city police.”
Those helpers include Russell Wilson, a captain at Whitfield County Fire Station 5; Stacy Edmondson, who flies on a LifeForce helicopter; and Randy Goodwin, Whitfield EMS.
Sheriff Scott Chitwood campaigned with Dixon in 1992 as they both sought elected office for the first time. He showers her with high praise, saying she is “great to work with.”
“Not only do I consider her a professional cohort, Bobbie Dixon is a good friend of ours,” Chitwood says. “I have the highest respect for her, and she serves the public very well in her capacity.”