LOWVILLE It was a typical start to a trial week for Lewis County District Attorney Leanne K. Moser.
While waiting in the third-floor courtroom on a Monday morning several years ago, she pondered the case in her head and prepared to question potential jurors.
Then she received a call about an unattended death in the county, and her plans quickly changed.
Ms. Moser immediately passed along jury selection duties to Assistant District Attorney Caleb J. Petzoldt and rushed to the scene to perform the other part of her municipal job, that of county coroner.
You need to be there, said Ms. Moser, now in the seventh year of her elected dual role as Lewis Countys district attorney and coroner. You need to have a presence. There have been very few (coroner calls) that Ive missed.
Lewis County is one of three counties in the state along with Oswego and Madison that have a district attorney who also serves as coroner. Other counties employ either separate coroners, as with St. Lawrence County, or a medical examiner (Jefferson County).
For Ms. Moser, 47, coroner duties have interrupted meetings, a Christmas Eve church service, dinners with friends, and lots of sleep, courtesy of middle-of-the-night wake-up calls.
You cant control that, obviously, she said. When calls come, I try to get there as fast as possible so medical personnel and other officials dont have to wait too long.
Her mother, Sharon Moser, said family and friends cant really complain about Leannes busy schedule, since they were aware of the inconvenience factor when she chose to run for office.
Shes on call 24-7 for that, Sharon said.
From 2008 through 2013, the Lewis County DAs office handled an average of 46 coroner calls per year. There have been about half that many in the five months of this year.
Ms. Moser, whose current four-year term expires at the end of 2015, said she often goes weeks without a coroner call, only to have several come in the same week or even day.
The time spent per case is unpredictable, ranging from an hour to several hours at the scene, plus a post-autopsy investigation and extra paperwork for days to come, Ms. Moser said.
She said DA duties take up the vast majority of her working time, particularly during regular business hours, but she hasnt calculated what percentage of her job is spent on coroner responsibilities.
I wouldnt even begin to guess, said Ms. Moser, a Lowville resident who earns $150,000 a year in the position.
While both jobs require her to be on call at all times, DA duties often can be resolved by phone, while coroner responsibilities require an in-person visit, Ms. Moser said.
A LITTLE HELP FROM FRIENDS
Ms. Moser acknowledged that her college coursework at Syracuse University and prior prosecutorial jobs in Rochester did little to prepare her for her duties as coroner, given that she had no formal medical training.
My pronouncement of death is truly a formality, she said.
To gain more knowledge about her new post, Ms. Moser in her first year as DA/coroner attended a weeklong training session put on by the New York City Medical Examiners office. Also in attendance was then-Lewis County Emergency Medical Services Director Mark A. Tuttle, whom she had recently appointed as deputy coroner.
We complement each other really well in the field, said Mr. Tuttle, who also works on a Watertown-based LifeNet helicopter crew. She obviously has an expertise on the legal side of things, while I have an expertise on the medical side.
Mr. Tuttle can handle coroner duties when Ms. Moser is unavailable, and Mr. Petzoldt, the assistant district attorney, also is an option.
Ms. Moser said a deputy coroner with extensive medical training is absolutely huge as both a resource and a go-between with medical personnel and agencies.
Before Mr. Tuttle, the late Dr. John C. Herrman, a retired surgeon, provided medical expertise to Ms. Moser and to three predecessors Nathaniel B. Merrell, James P. ORourke and Michael F. Young from 1969 through his retirement as deputy coroner in 2008.
I think all of us relied on him tremendously, said Mr. Young, who served as DA for six months in 1988 and again from 1999 through 2007.
The former prosecutor, now a member of the Lewis County Public Defenders group, said he tried to make it to every coroner call possible even on a few occasions while in court but did not have the medical knowledge of his deputy.
Dr. Herrman reviewed every case, he said. I relied on his expertise on whether to schedule an autopsy.
Whenever there is a question about why a death occurred, forensic pathologist Dr. Samuel A. Livingstone who also serves Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties is called upon to conduct an autopsy and to determine the official cause of death.
Also helpful to DA/coroners are local doctors who review medical histories and other records. Of particular help in that area is Vonnice L. Joels, Jefferson Countys longtime medical investigator, Ms. Moser said.
That womans fountain of knowledge is amazing, Ms. Moser said. I could not imagine being able to do this part of the job without her.
THE CORONER JOB
While some coroner calls involve older people who die of natural causes, those involving younger victims, suicides, motor vehicle crashes or other accidents can be more difficult to handle, Ms. Moser said.
It is not easy, she said. There is an emotional by-product. These are some tragic situations.
I remember some very sad situations, Mr. Young agreed. I wanted to handle it for the families as best I could.
Like emergency responders, coroners sometimes must focus on the task at hand that of ensuring the body is properly handled and identified, Ms. Moser said. That can be particularly difficult in a small town, where coroner calls easily can involve someone you know at least tangentially, she said.
Notifying next-of-kin and dealing with grieving families also is very difficult, but it can be rewarding to help people through trying times, Ms. Moser said.
She credited Mr. Tuttle with helping her handle that aspect of the job.
He taught me how to find a balance of compassion without losing ones own soul each time, and straight-forward honesty with families when talking about something no one wants to hear, Ms. Moser said.
She views her dual role as a positive, with the requisite cross-training allowing her to view the medical and legal aspects of a scene and to help ensure any potential prosecution isnt compromised.
You put on both hats and you think ahead, Ms. Moser said. You have to anticipate as well as you can.
Rather than being a detriment or potential conflict, Gregory S. Oakes, the district attorney/coroner in Oswego County, sees his double duty as an asset.
It really has, frankly, made me a better prosecutor, he said.
The coroner job tends to offer better access to the scene of a death than a typical DA would get, and having been on the scene can prove beneficial when trying a criminal case or explaining a case to a jury, Mr. Oakes said.
Ms. Moser said her coroner role sometimes becomes the subject of conversation at gatherings of district attorneys, particularly with those in larger counties. However, like her predecessors, she views it simply as part of her elected post in Lewis County, which has a population of about 27,000.
I honor both of my jobs very seriously, she said. I have a deep respect for the position.