New Montana law allows sheriff-coroners to perform inquests for in-custody deaths

Valley County Coroner's Inquest
Posted at 6:30 PM, Feb 08, 2024

HELENA — Last week, Lewis and Clark County Sheriff-Coroner Leo Dutton traveled to Glasgow, where he presided over a coroner’s inquest into a 2022 death. It’s a situation that only became possible because of a law change passed during last year’s Montana legislative session.

Whenever someone in Montana is killed by a law enforcement officer or dies while in the custody of an officer or a correctional facility, an inquest must be held to look into the cause and circumstances.

“A coroner’s inquest is not to find guilt or anything like that,” said Dutton. “It is to determine who the person was, did the person die of criminal means?”

Prior to 2023, state law said a coroner who is also a law enforcement officer couldn’t conduct an inquest for an in-custody death. However, in recent years, more and more counties have combined their sheriff and coroner’s offices, with one person holding both titles. That’s made it harder to find civilian coroners.

Brian Thompson, a lobbyist for the Montana Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, said during a legislative hearing last year that only 15 counties still had independently elected coroners. That means those 15 people had to handle all the inquests for in-custody deaths.

The Legislature eventually passed and Gov. Greg Gianforte signed Senate Bill 68, sponsored by Sen. Barry Usher, R-Yellowstone County. That bill allowed sheriff-coroners to preside over these inquests as long as they’re from a different jurisdiction.

It’s not the coroners themselves making a ruling. A jury is assembled and tasked with hearing evidence and rendering a verdict. Dutton said much of the coroner’s work is just to give jurors their instructions.

“The jury makes a decision,” he said. “Again, this is not to find innocent or guilty. The county attorney's office is the one who presents evidence. The jurors get to question any witnesses as such, and they make their own independent decision.”

Dutton, Valley County Sheriff Tom Boyer and Valley County Attorney Dylan Jensen all told MTN that, as far as they can tell, last week’s inquest in Glasgow was the first time a sheriff-coroner was called in to preside over one under the new law.

“I was a little nervous,” said Dutton. “I had no real history to call up another sheriff going, ‘How’d it go? What’d you do?’”

He said Boyer and Jensen worked closely with him to get him prepared for the responsibility.

The case dealt with the March 2022 of Dennis Wing. Boyer told MTN his department had detained Wing and his father during a drug-related investigation, and that it appeared Wing had ingested drugs while in the back of a patrol vehicle. Wing was sent to Frances Mahon Deaconess Hospital in Glasgow for treatment, where he later died.

Boyer said Wing’s death wasn’t technically in custody, but that he felt it was important given the circumstances that there be an independent investigation. Because of that, he asked the Montana Department of Justice’s Division of Criminal Investigation for assistance and called for a coroner’s inquest.

Dutton said the inquest lasted about four hours. He said jurors deliberated about 25 minutes before concluding there was no criminal action that led to Wing’s death. The verdict from a coroner’s jury does not need to be unanimous, but Dutton said all seven jurors were in agreement in this case.

Dutton said he understood people may have concerns about an appearance of bias if a law enforcement officer oversees a case involving other officers, but that he believes there’s no reason the process can’t be fair.

“There was a concern about a sense of impropriety that one law enforcement agency would cover for another,” he said. “But I can assure you that, as coroners or sheriffs, we do not do that.”