WilCo contemplates adding three death investigators

Williamson County officials are hoping to add three death investigators to the county attorney’s office to help offer justices of the peace some relief with the number of of death inquests.

Since Williamson County does not have a medical examiner’s office, it is the responsibility of justices of the peace to respond to scenes of death outside of a medical facility. Because of a higher amount of deaths experienced with a rising population, it has become common for justices of the peace to delay or cancel court hearings to rush out to a scene, said Bill Gravell, Williamson County Justice of the Peace for Precinct 3.

The justice said he did so more than three times last week. Though when a death inquest came in on the morning of Aug. 5, six jury trials with more than 100 potential jurors were in his courtroom, and he said canceling the hearings would have resulted in a loss of thousands of taxpayer dollars.

Instead Gravell received electronic images from deputies on the scene and called for an autopsy without having to leave the courtroom. He said running a courtroom and also being responsible with dealing with the death of an individual is a delicate balance.

“When I have a deceased person before me, it is my responsibility under the law to write the last chapter of their life and get that unequivocally, absolutely right,” Gravell said.

According to the office of court administration, Williamson County justices responded to 461 death inquests last year. The office predicts that number will rise to 521 by the end of this year, Gravell said.

“The stress and the pressure that is placed on your judges is what we accepted when we took office, but it certainly wasn’t what we expected when we got past the point of being half a million people,” he said.

Williamson County Judge Dan Gattis said he hopes the justices could be helped by hiring death inquest investigators to go out to the scenes. Two out of the county’s four justices appeared before the Williamson County Commissioners Aug. 11 to support adding the positions onto the county budget.

The death investigators would be able to respond to the scene of the death, gather medical records from hospitals, notify family members and authorize the body be moved from the scene, said Williamson County Attorney Dee Hobbs.

“The number of deaths are increasing exponentially in our county, and this would basically be extra resources for the [justices of the peace] to use,” he said.

Gravell said hiring death investigators would likely sustain the county for the next three to five years, and Gattis said this would be a step toward creating a medical examiner’s office for the county.

The costs for the three investigators, including vehicles, radios, computers and salaries, would be nearly $432,000, said county budget officer Ashlie Koenig.

Commissioner Cynthia Long said the request was timed poorly—county budget discussions have been ongoing since February, so the commissioners now have less than one month to finalize next year’s numbers.

“That’s close to a half a million ding to the budget…y’all are basically putting this to us literally at the 11th hour,” said Commissioner Cynthia Long. “I’m not arguing against the need, but the timing really stinks.”

Gattis said the commissioners would not need to raise taxes to add on the positions because of rising property values.

The commissioners are  reviewing possible numbers for the budget and tax rate for next year. The commissioners are expected to vote on the final budget Sept. 1 and the tax rate Sept. 8.