In what seems to be turning into a chicken or the egg situation at the Clarendon County Courthouse, a merit hearing about whether the winner of the Democratic primary for coroner can remain on the ballot will spill into next week.
The hearing on Friday, which ultimately lasted from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., was originally a result of Clarendon County Coroner Bucky Mock filing a lawsuit claiming LaNette Samuels-Cooper, who beat Mock in the June 12 primary, is not qualified to be a coroner in South Carolina and incorrectly marked she had one year’s experience in death investigation with a law enforcement agency, coroner or medical examiner agency.
Mock, who was appointed coroner by Gov. Henry McMaster in April after serving as interim coroner since January after the late Samuels Hayes died, has 22 years’ experience as a death investigator and has worked as deputy coroner in Clarendon County for 21 years.
Samuels-Cooper, the sister of Hayes, has said on the record previously she has not led a death investigation but that her 13 years of working as an administrative assistant in the coroner’s office and at her brother’s funeral home before he became coroner make her qualified for the position. She also is enrolled in a five-day class in August that she says will allow her to become qualified.
Before testimony on Samuels-Cooper began, her attorney Ronnie Sabb introduced a dispositive motion claiming precedent based on statute 7-17-530, 560 and 520. The motion asked Third Circuit Court Judge Ferrell Cothran to dismiss the entire suit based on the fact that Mock did not “exhaust all administrative options” in protesting or contesting the primary election results with the Clarendon County or South Carolina Democratic Party before a deadline of noon on the Monday after the primary.
Mock’s attorney, Robert E. Tyson Jr., claimed he did not get a copy of the new motion until it was presented in court Friday morning and that that was not enough time to respond. He did say that the motion should not matter because Cothran has jurisdiction over the case because it is an injunction asking to challenge Samuels-Cooper’s qualifications to be a coroner.
“This isn’t a protest to the election. This is a challenge to the qualifications of the candidate. Circuit Court has jurisdiction over injunctions,” Tyson said.
After a recess, Cothran said he wanted to continue with hearing the case and said there were now two issues at play in the case — first, an issue over the date that Samuels-Cooper filed her affidavit to run as a candidate needed to be addressed with a formal protest, which Mock did not do.
In an affidavit filed on March 19, within the filing dates for the race, there were no boxes checked on Samuels-Cooper's form where coroner candidates must say what their experience is to make them qualified. In an affidavit filed on April 4, on the official, notarized filing form on record with the South Carolina Election Commission, she marked that she has a four-year degree and one year of death investigation experience – both are included in one qualification element.
Cothran said the fact that she filed wrongly and then late likely could not be used in this case, though he said he wanted more time before making a ruling.
But because Mock is challenging whether Samuels-Cooper can be a “coroner, period,” not whether she can be a candidate according to paperwork, he let the case continue on that second issue.
For the first witness, Mock was called to the stand and was questioned by both sides for two-and-a-half hours.
Tyson asked him about his background. Mock noted, in addition to his years as a deputy coroner and then as coroner this year, he is a registered nurse and has worked in emergency rooms for more than 35 years and is a volunteer first responder through the fire service.
Tyson had Mock spell out what a coroner does and what it means to conduct a death investigation, a subject that was touched on in detail throughout the rest of the day.
Mock said a death investigation involves going to a scene where there is a death, whether the death was natural, accidental or part of a crime scene. It then involves gathering information at the scene and away from the scene, possibly ordering an autopsy, talking to other agencies and witnesses and making an informed decision of the manner and cause of death.
When asked, Mock said during his time working with her, Samuels-Cooper never conducted a death investigation.
He was asked about how many death investigations he has done. With Clarendon County seeing between 250-300 deaths a year, he handled about a quarter of them, meaning he has led between 500 and 1,000 in his career.
Sabb’s cross examination involved claiming Samuels-Cooper received credit for conducting death investigations by taking phone calls and filing paperwork.
He brought up a question surrounding a certification process through the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators that is one of the ways to qualify as a coroner. To sign up for to test through ABMDI, a person must be a deputy coroner or coroner. Sabb claimed the organization favors those already in office.
Shawn Kent, an attorney for the Clarendon County Board of Voter Registration and Elections, verified with Mock that he did not think the county board did anything wrong.
After another recess for lunch, the second witness called was Sabrina Gast, the coroner for York County and the new president of the South Carolina Coroner’s Association who is on the South Carolina Training Advisory Committee that determines the ABDMI certification is the only valid certification process.
Tyson’s questions to Gast asserted the same definitions of a death investigator, though the cross-examination by Kimberly Barr pointed out there is no definition in the law.
Gast said Samuels-Cooper, in her position as administrative assistant, cannot gain a year of death investigation “according to statute.”
The rest of the day generally hinged on the issue of the ABDMI process and whether the five-day course Samuels-Cooper is signed up for can count toward it.
It was determined there is no course a person can take to get certified without being a deputy coroner, a coroner or a medical examiner.
Judge Cothran was not happy with this revelation, focusing on the error in the statute that “clearly favors” coroners and deputy coroners.
Tyson countered by saying the certification is not applicable because she did not check the box claiming that was her qualification, but if Cothran rules in favor of Sabb’s motion, the affidavits cannot be used. Therefore, the question would be if she is qualified at all.
“It may be a bad statute. You may be on to something. But that’s not the issue we have here today,” Tyson said.
After about an hour of Gast being on the stand, Cothran decided to recess for the day.
Tyson has until Tuesday to respond to Sabb’s motion requesting the case be dismissed because Mock did not protest the election.
Cothran said he will rule on the motion on Wednesday. If he rules in favor of the motion and to dismiss the issue of Samuels-Cooper’s qualifications, Mock can sue again. If he rules any part of the case should continue, the trial will reconvene on July 27, where the next witness listed to take the stand is likely to be Samuels-Cooper.
The state and county agencies are no longer being questioned about wrongdoing, but they are still involved because they simply have to wait for a decision on whether Samuels-Cooper can remain on the November general election ballot.
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