Lawmakers pass bill launched by Douglas County coroner

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When Douglas County Coroner Lora Thomas helped draft legislation to tighten Colorado's coroner law, she called on Laura Couillard for support.

Couillard and her husband, Ernie Couillard, were more than willing to help.

The Castle Rock family in 2011 had a firsthand look at the coroner's protocol when their 15-year-old son Christopher was found unresponsive in the basement of their home. The coroner determined he died of asphyxiation in the aftermath of a party that went wrong.

What the coroner could never tell them was when he died.

“We'll never know if an earlier phone call to 911 would have saved him,” Laura Couillard said. “For the other four survivors who were in the house that day, they'll have to go through life never knowing if an earlier 911 call could have saved Christopher.”

The coroner was unable to determine time of death because sheriff's investigators said a search warrant was needed before coroner's staffers could enter the house. The elapsed time between the 911 call and the time death investigators were able to view the body was more than eight hours.

It was too late to obtain time-sensitive information such as rigor and livor mortis and body temperature — all pivotal to determining time of death, Thomas said.

“There was nothing in statute that spoke to the importance of collecting time-sensitive information,” Thomas said. “The wording I used in the Legislature puts the traffic lines on the road. We now know who belongs in which lane. It's given us better direction.”

Thomas in 2012 worked with the Colorado Coroners Association to draft legislation that ensures timely access to death scenes and spells out which types of cases require an investigation.

As that measure — House Bill 13-1097 — made its way through committees this year, contributors to the legislation worked to ensure the rights to privacy afforded by the Constitution remained intact, said Douglas County Undersheriff Tony Spurlock. The bill passed the House in February and the Senate in March and was signed into law by Gov. John Hickenlooper last week.

The final version will have no impact on the way the sheriff's office handles death investigations, Spurlock said.

“The bill contains and upholds the belief that the Fourth Amendment is the most important part of a death investigation, criminal or non-criminal,” Spurlock said. “If it takes a while for someone to get into a scene because we have to get a search warrant, everyone wants to ensure that our property is safe from the government.

“Our interest is taking care of the victims, the criminal investigation and the family left behind,” he said. “Our policy is to take care of the crime scene using best practices throughout law enforcement. We've been doing that for years.”

Couillard shared her experience with lawmakers in a letter to Rep. Rhonda Fields, D-Aurora, in hopes of influencing legislators' decision. She will always be haunted by the question of whether her son could have been saved by an earlier phone call, she said.

“The major part was to make sure that no other family would ever have to go through what we did,” Couillard said. “(Christopher's) brother and his friends have to live with never knowing if an earlier call to 911 could have saved Christopher's life. They have nothing but regret and remorse for not calling sooner, but could an earlier call have saved him? We will never know.”