BY MARCELA CARTAGENA
It's been 21 years and Lee County Coroner Roy Barnett can definitely say he has seen it all.
Dead children. Stabbed women. Shot men.
Suicides. Fatal accidents. Electrocutions. Drug overdoses. Murder.
He remembers, for instance, his very first call when the chief of police at the time told him a black male had been beaten to death. Barnett was nervous. He grabbed his note pad and death-report forms and rushed to the scene where he saw a dead man covered with bruises.
Then came the autopsy.
“Not a pretty sight,” Barnett recalls. “I was nervous, I took notes, we knew he was murdered by blunt-force trauma. The autopsy lasted about three hours.”
Then came his second case. Another he'll never forget. A baby had died. The family was poor.
“I took the dead baby (to the morgue) in my car and all the way home I said to myself I'm going to resign, I'm going to resign' – it hurt – it was very depressing.
“When dealing with children's deaths you have to be careful because most of the time the family don't want to let the body go. I go home and try to wipe it out of my mind,” he says.
Barnett says during his years of public work as coroner he has seen so many deaths he cannot count them. But there are always those you never forget, he says.
Another case vividly remembered: A young woman jogging along Legion Lake Road had been brutally stabbed numerous times. He again rushed to the scene, where he saw the body of the victim. He ordered an autopsy. It was another murder.
And then there are the traffic accidents – those unforeseen deaths that can sometimes leave body parts scattered on the ground. Barnett says body parts are picked up, sent to the morgue, where blood samples are taken from the body to determine if any substances are present.
“People think it's an easy job, but it's not. It's a 24/7 job in which you never know when you are going to get a call,” Barnett says. “It's so hard. It's so depressing. You just want to do something for the families, but there is so little you can do for them.”
Faith and compassion
Having a strong faith and being compassionate toward families are the keys that have kept Barnett on the job all these years, he firmly states. A member of Nettleton Church of Christ, Barnett says he depends solely and strongly on God.
“When I go out and view a body I act like that was a member of my family; then I can go home and try to clear up my head at night. I depend on God. God is my strength.
“Although all cases are different, it's kind of like a routine procedure. I'm interested in the families when I go out there to the scenes. And you need to get to the scene as soon as possible and get the body away from there because it's bad enough on the family.
“With every family who has a death you've got to be sympathetic. So, when I go into a room where someone has lost a family member we have a prayer.”
Barnett says he's a compassionate man; after all, he dealt with the tragic death of his own son 18 months ago. He thinks about him every day.
“But like I said, I depend solely on God. If you don't have God with you, you are in trouble.”
What it takes
Before becoming coroner, Barnett was a businessman. He was manager of Lady Lee Wholesale Store for years. But when the opportunity came, he ran for coroner because he had always been interested in forensic work.
Soon after he was elected, Barnett attended school for one week, where he was taught to fill out two types of forms coroners must have with them at all times – certificates of death and reports of death investigation. Coroners also have to learn about criminal justice, public health and safety, and more. They are required to take 24 hours of continuing education every year.
Coroners commonly attend coroners association meetings in their corresponding districts. For years, Barnett has been a member of the Mississippi Coroners Medical Examiners Association, which is composed of nine coroners from Northeast Mississippi.
They meet once a month and have guest speakers such as district attorneys, police officers, investigators and others. “We may have someone from the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics to educate us about dangerous drugs on the streets, how they affect people, how they are been used and so forth. See, a person can overdose even on Tylenol – any drug can be dangerous and not only young people overdose. Older people can overdose, too, and a lot of times it's accidental.”
These public officials – who are elected every four years – also interact with local and state officials in filing records and participating in investigations when needed.
“My relationship with all county officials has been wonderful. I have never, never, had any problems with them. I do my job and get out of the way and let them do their job. We have some of the best law enforcement officers, best paramedics, best doctors and nurses that can be found anywhere. And a lot of people can't say that. I hear a lot of the coroners say Oh, I have trouble with this and I have trouble with that.'”
So is there a positive side to this job? “Well yes, coroners spend most of their time dealing with live people, and all of our work is really directed to benefit the living.”
Roy Barnett was re-elected to the office of coroner of Lee County six consecutive times. He will not seek re-election.