Wright County, medical examiner work as crime fighting team

By John Holler

Contributing Writer

The last thing anyone in the area of law enforcement wants to deal with is a murder.

But, as Wright County continues to grow, the odds of having murders in the county rises as well. In the last four years, there have been two murders, both taking place in Annandale.

When a crime scene does take place, the call goes out to Dr. Quinn Strobl and her staff at the Midwest Medical Examiner’s Office. Based in the City of Ramsey, Strobl and her associates bring the latest technological advancements to the art of explaining what happened at a crime scene – a far cry from the old days when the county coroner was an on-call doctor at the Buffalo Hospital and couldn’t always leave the hospital to investigate a crime scene with a dead body. More than 20 years ago, it was determined that the county needed something more. Since then, the county has employed a forensic pathologist.

Strobl or one her assistants isn’t called in for all death scenes, but those that have some questions surrounding them.

“For all cases not considered ‘suspicious’ or known homicides, a trained death investigator responds,” Strobl said. “Only in cases of suspicious death, a known homicide, or law enforcement request, does a pathologist attend a scene. We are fortunate to have excellent working relationship amongst the three major entities – medical examiner, county attorney and sheriff’s office. There is mutual respect as professionals, as we understand our distinct roles and responsibilities. The M.E.’s role is to establish cause and manner of the death for the purposes of justice and/or public health.”

Wright County Attorney Tom Kelly has believed in a team approach to the handling of death scenes since he became the head of the county’s criminal division in 1990. While some counties have “turf wars” between law enforcement and the county attorney’s office, Wright County has developed and maintained a strong team approach between the county attorney’s office, sheriff’s office and medical examiner.

“The information they can provide us is invaluable,” Kelly said. “An example would if we have a pre-meditated first-degree murder case, the law in the State of Minnesota doesn’t allow me to file that charge as a complaint. I have to have a grand jury come back with an indictment for first-degree pre-meditated murder, because that calls for life in prison without the possibility of parole. My case starts with the forensic pathologist because they determine the cause of death and they actually speak for the dead. It’s information that I would never be able to gather and understand, much less put in layman’s terms for grand juries and for juries.”

Much like one sees on a CSI program, Strobl can make several determinations as part of her breakdown of a crime scene, including the approximate time of death the distance between the victim and the shooter in a gunshot scenario, wound trajectories and forensic evidence that can be taken off the body, such as DNA under the fingernails if there was a struggle, defensive wounds, etc.

Wright County Sheriff Joe Hagerty said the role of the medical examiner is critical to his office doing its job properly.

“I can’t say enough about the service Dr. Strobl and her office performs,” Hagerty said. “It’s a much more secure way to do our work. You always want to be sure when there is a death certificate being signed that you know a death was accidental, a suicide or a homicide. We’re very confident in the work they do and the findings they come by. We treat every death as potentially being suspicious. We can’t take anything for granted and just call back on previous experience and say, ‘this is really similar to that.’ You treat every death as a homicide until you can prove it isn’t.”

Kelly is convinced that the successful prosecution of the two recent murder cases was based significantly on the evidenced produced by Strobl’s staff, which is light years ahead of the time when a coroner without the benefit of technological advances was asked to explain a death scene.

“What they’ve given us compared to the old days where you simply had a coroner and that was it, we’ve really made great advances in helping us solve the most serious crimes we deal with – and that’s murder,” Kelly said. “I can’t fathom trying to work through a murder case without the assistance of a forensic pathologist and one as good as Dr. Quinn Strobl.”

Initially the Wright County Board had some reservations about spending markedly more money for a medical examiner, it has been an investment that has helped the county maintain a high level of public safety and crime fighting techniques.

“I think the price was like $13,000 for the coroner,” Hagerty said. “It wasn’t easy to get the county board to commit that much more money. Right now, it’s over $300,000 [the 2014 budget figure for Midwest is $330,969]. It was as much when we first started, but it was a big jump. Fortunately, the county board at that time saw the value of having the latest technology and expertise as our county was growing and crime was coming in, as it always does in areas of growth. You get what you pay for and we feel we get what we pay for.”

While the cost is prohibitive, it’s all part of crime examination the modern era.

“It’s the cost of doing business in the modern age, especially when it comes to the most serious crimes,” Kelly said. “As technology has increased, the need to use them in death scene investigations has increased as well. Is it expensive? Yes, but it’s part of doing business.”

All cases investigated aren’t murder cases. Far more of them are suicides, which are just as tragic for Strobl and her staff to investigate. The decision for someone to take their own life is always a tragedy and one that families often have a hard time accepting.

“People are very different in their response to death,” Strobl said. “We experience a wide range of reactions. Some people are very accepting or matter of fact, while others won’t accept it for various reasons, including religious, financial or emotional. We are often asked that we do not put suicide on the death certificate because it will void a life insurance policy. It is hard to tell a family that we cannot ‘choose’ how to fill out a death certificate.”

In the case of murder, Strobl’s job in the legal process is to serve as the voice of the victim, explaining the often gruesome details of what happened to the victim and how he or she died. At times, it can be a complicated process, but one that gives Strobl some satisfaction when she can adequately explain to a jury.

“The M.E.’s job is to explain the cause and manner of death to the jury,” Strobl said. “That can be quite a challenge, as the jury may have no medical background and, in many cases, you are showing them things no person should be forced to see. When they nod at you and you feel you are helping them understand, that is a sense of satisfaction. If I have been clear, true to the case and unbiased, that is when I know I’ve done my job.”

While both Kelly and Hagerty hope they don’t have a situation in which they need her experience, both agree it’s nice to have her on staff when her assistance is needed.

“I have nothing but good things to say about Dr. Strobl and the job she and her office has done for Wright County,” Kelly said. “Nobody wants to have a first-degree murder case come to them, but murders do happen. Having a forensic pathologist as skilled as Dr. Strobl on our team, it’s a valuable resource.”

“The whole thing really fits like a glove having the medical examiner’s office work with my office and the county attorney,” Hagerty said. “Dr. Quinn Strobl is second to none. We’ve really been fortunate to have her and her office involved with our public safety efforts.”