A Coroner Who Cares
Photography by Catie Viox
Clogged drainage in the autopsy room, encouraging kids to study science, standing firm against corruption: That’s a regular day of work for Lakshmi Sammarco, MD, the Hamilton County coroner. Venue Magazine sat down with Dr. Sammarco to learn about her job, her hopes for the office’s future and the numerous ways she strives to improve the community of Greater Cincinnati.
Venue Magazine: A lot of people think it’s odd that the coroner is an elected position. Why is that the case?
Dr. Lakshmi Sammarco: You want the coroner to be elected because it holds them directly accountable to the taxpayers. In the time I’ve been in this position, I’ve already been asked to rule a certain way on cases by various people. They’re usually motivated by money and might ask if I could “forget” certain aspects of the autopsy. That’s why we’re elected and not left accountable only to an appointed committee. It’s a safeguard against corruption. You have to consider the integrity of the person you put in office, just like any other law enforcement position. I had a successful career as a neuroradiologist before choosing public service. I took this job because I had an ethical motivation to give back to the community I live in.
VM: Could you tell us a bit about the crime lab?
DLS: Thankfully, we’ve been approved for a completely new lab, which we desperately need. The number of cases we do continues to skyrocket, and the current lab was built in 1972. We call it the “CSI effect” when juries today often expect you to have hard, forensic evidence – especially DNA although it’s far from foolproof. We’re already 300 DNA cases behind, but even if I wanted to hire another DNA person, I don’t have the space for them. Firearms are also critical part, but we don’t have a decent firing range to test weapons. We’re down to one autopsy table for plumbing reasons, and about once a week they have to pressure clean the sewage pipes to unclog them. We don’t even have enough electricity for all the equipment we have. Still, our office actually brings back about a third of our yearly budget from all the out-of-county work that we take in. Think about how much more we could do if we expand.
VM: That sounds incredibly stressful, but it’s great that you’ll finally be getting a new lab. What else do you envision for improving it?
DLS: One of the things I’d really like to do is design the crime lab in such a way that the public can access and view it to actually see what we’re doing. This is a public, tax-funded facility, so I want people to be able to witness it. Also, we cherish the relationship we have with law enforcement, so we want to provide as much help to them as we can, and a huge part of that means keeping kids away from crime and getting them interested in school. Everyone loves forensics on TV, so using that is a great way to get students excited about forensic sciences.
VM: How do you get students initially interested?
DLS: When a school asks us to talk, we bring the kids in by exciting them with the “CSI” talk, and then we talk about drug violence and try to encourage them along a good path. It has a powerful effect when they can see the actual results of drug use and violent crime. We had four dead 14-year-olds last year because they were involved in the drug trade. We tell the kids, “We don’t want any of you ending up on our autopsy table. Our reality is a lot worse than what you see on TV.”
VM: It seems like you have a passion for helping kids. Is that one of your biggest motivations for the work you do?
DLS: Absolutely. I have a 17-year-old and a 13-year-old who were 12 and 9 when I started. They’re in that age group at risk for drug crime. We’re raising this generation, so if we can’t do something to stem the flow of dangerous drugs, what chance do we have of improving the future? I’m also on the board for several different organizations where I’m trying to work at a level for kids, and the office’s annual fundraiser has raised money for Boys Hope Girls Hope, the Council on Child Abuse, Crime Stoppers and the YWCA’s domestic violence shelters.
The Hamilton County Coroner’s Office masquerade ball will be November 18th at the Ramada Plaza. It will raise money for the Lindner Center of Hope and Crime Stoppers. For more information, call 513-946-8700.