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Deaths in Custody: The Utility of Data Collected from County Coroners

NCJ Number
Criminal Justice Studies Volume: 20 Issue: 1 Dated: March 2007 Pages: 65-78
William V. Pelfrey Jr.; Michele White Covington
Date Published
March 2007
14 pages
This study contacted and interviewed county coroners in South Carolina in order to collect data on deaths that occurred while the decedents were in the custody of law enforcement officials in 2003 and the first quarter of 2004.
Of the five cases that met these criteria, two were directly attributable to drug use, and two were due to gunshot wounds. One case was due to some sort of medical trauma while the subject was being treated in an emergency room. Except for the latter case, all subjects would have been charged with either resisting arrest, assault, or a similar charge that reflected their struggle with the officers involved. Subject behavior was apparently a strong influence on the case outcomes. In all but one case, the subjects appeared intoxicated; resisted being handcuffed or arrested; tried to escape from custody; and grabbed, hit, or fought with the officers trying to control the subject. Study data were collected from all of the county coroners in South Carolina through a telephone survey. The research design made it possible to acquire detailed data from 46 informed sources rather than from every law enforcement agency in the State. Also, since much of the data collected by county coroners is public information, they are likely to be a more objective and reliable source than law enforcement agencies, which might be inclined to omit data that would undermine the agency's reputation. 1 table, 18 references, and appended deaths-in-custody question form