Coroner floats, then sinks, inquest into inmate’s death – Daily Local
WEST CHESTER – Dr Christina VandePol, Chester County Coroner, wanted to try something out of the ordinary.
Faced with having to determine the cause of death of an inmate at the county jail this spring – a relatively young man who had no history of serious illness in his past – VandePol announced Thursday that it would convene a coroner’s inquest into the case, a procedure not used by its predecessors for at least 50 years.
She acknowledged in an interview on Friday morning that the effort would be largely untested in the county in recent memory, with key details of how it would unfold still unknown.
“It’s a new process,” VandePol said. “There are different counties in the state that do surveys, but each does it differently. The law is very vague, so we are looking at “best practices” to see how the procedure will work. “But it’s the coroner who decides how it’s done. “
But less than 30 hours after making the initial appeal to begin the investigative process – with summons sent to more than 300 county residents for the special session at the county justice center and a dedicated courtroom for the county court. ‘hearing – and after an interview with a reporter while she expressed her uncertainty or simply refused to answer questions about the procedure and its necessity, VandePol unplugged.
Mid-afternoon on Friday, VandePol issued a new press release in which it announced the cause of death of Dimitrios Moscharis, with the West Chester man accused of beating and torturing his little girl’s young daughter. friend to the point of dying. She said he died of “sudden cardiac arrhythmia due to cardiomegaly (enlarged heart)”, and proclaimed the mode of death from natural causes.
“The results of two autopsies, one performed by a coroner’s office forensic pathologist and the other from a private autopsy performed at the family’s request, were consistent,” she said in the statement. “Microscopic examination showed abnormal and damaged heart muscle. Neither autopsy found a traumatic injury that contributed to the death.
“The death of a previously healthy 34-year-old man while in custody demanded a full investigation on our part and that is what has been done,” she said in the statement. “An investigation was scheduled, and during the pre-investigation process, further discussions were held with witnesses and we obtained the private autopsy report. As a result, I have no concerns other than natural death at this time, the case is closed and I will not conduct an investigation. “
VandePol could not be reached on Saturday to explain who the witnesses were, what they said that was adding to the investigation, or when they were questioned and by whom. She also did not specify when she received the results of the two autopsies upon her release.
Moscharis, 34, died in Chester County Jail on June 18, where he had been held since his arrest in November. He had been charged by Westtown-East Goshen Police with crimes against his girlfriend’s daughter, Julianne Stacy Lewis, including aggravated assault, endangering child welfare, unlawful duress, forcible confinement , common assault and reckless endangerment of another person. The girl was reportedly on the verge of death when she was found by emergency personnel at her home in the Coventry Village section of Westtown, but has since recovered.
After Moscharis was found dead on June 18, the district attorney’s office, which was prosecuting him for the assaults, only said he died in prison and declined to comment further, citing an ongoing investigation by Chester County detectives. No charges have been filed regarding the case to date.
An autopsy was performed by the coroner’s office after his death, with VandePol saying at the time that the results would not be available until several weeks later. On Friday, during a first interview, she refused to disclose what, if any, was the determination of the cause or the mode of death, pending the investigation, except to say that there had no “evidence of traumatic injury”.
“Deaths in custody require transparency,” Dr VandePol said in his press release on Thursday. “The survey is particularly suited for this purpose. The deceased was only 34 years old and had no significant medical history. The investigation will allow us to thoroughly examine all the evidence and put a jury on this case before concluding our investigation and issuing a death certificate. “
But she declined when asked to answer various questions about how the process would work, including who would be called to testify in the proceedings. She said she wasn’t sure who would conduct interviews with potential jurors – a process called voir dire, and usually handled by the judge overseeing the case – or whether a jury would even be chosen.
In normal jury selection, the judge oversees the questioning of potential jurors, but opposing parties choose who to select. In this case, there does not appear to be any parties other than the coroner. The county court administrator’s office had issued more than 300 special jury summons for the investigation and expected around 50 people to participate in the selection process on October 21, an official said on Friday. .
If VandePol had chosen to constitute a jury, it would be made up of six members and two alternates, she said. The investigation would probably last a day.
A coroner’s inquest is a process permitted by state law and is considered a fact-finding hearing conducted by the coroner as part of a death inquest. According to VandePol’s press release announcing the investigation, the proceedings are not a trial and no one is convicted or not guilty. No recent memory has been used in Chester County, with some observers claiming the last such hearing took place over 50 years ago.
But it was once a tool frequently used by the coroner of Fayette County, western Pennsylvania, according to Dr. Phillip Reilly, who served in that office for 40 years. In an interview, Reilly said the investigative process was helpful in determining who was responsible for a death when there were conflicting accounts of what had happened. He said they were typically used in drunk driving-related deaths or fatal police shootings.
“These are formal hearings under oath,” he said, as are grand jury proceedings, where witnesses are invited to testify under oath, the threat of perjury or contempt of court charges weighing heavily. on them. “There is a lot of work to put everything in place,” he said. “But it clarifies the truth.
“It’s nice to have some assignment of responsibility,” he noted. “It can be helpful to other team members. “
Reilly said the results of the investigation were then sometimes turned over to the district attorney’s office, which could then decide who, if any, to charge the death. “It can be useful to point them in the direction.” He had not used a survey in the past two or three years, he said.
VandePol did not say in her release whether she was working with the prosecutor’s office in connection with the investigation, or what she would do with the findings of the proceedings. “I cannot comment on the planning,” she said.
District Attorney Deb Ryan declined to comment on VandePol’s efforts, saying her office was still investigating Moscharis’ death. The lawyer who was representing Moscharis in the criminal case at the time of his death, Brian McCarthy of Exton, declined to comment on the case.
Moscharis was arrested and charged on November 23. The injuries to the young girl appeared to amount to “child torture,” Ryan said at the time. The girl was reportedly beaten, tied up and left in isolation for long periods of time in the days leading up to her discovery after police called. Ryan called the case “heartbreaking”.
Police found the child in an upstairs bathroom of her home, where Moscharis said she fell in a panic attack. But a physical examination of her body and a subsequent alleged admission by the accused to police showed that she had been severely beaten on the body several times over the past few days, most likely by a metal curtain rod and that she had been deprived of enough oxygen to cause brain damage. She had suffered a “near death” experience, according to the medical personnel who treated her.
Moscharis had apparently “disciplined” the child for minor infractions at home with his mother’s permission. The level of abuse, however, has increased over time, according to police.
The mother of the child, Lewis, 32, of Westtown remains in jail pending conviction by Judge Ann Marie Wheatcraft. She pleaded guilty in late August to charges of aggravated assault, conspiracy, kidnapping and endangering the well-being of children.
To contact editor Michael P. Rellahan, call 610-696-1544.