Judge closes book on coroner’s inquest

Brown County Coroner Dr. Judith Varnau may not investigate the death of Zachary Goldson any further and must pay $7500 in attorneys fees.

She is also prohibited from changing her ruling on his mode manner and cause of death.

That was the ruling issued on Sept. 8 by Brown County Common Pleas Judge Scott Gusweiler.

“We are reviewing and studying the ruling and considering further options, including a possible appeal,” said Varnau Attorney Thomas Eagle.

Plaintiffs attorney John Phillips said, “I thought it was a well thought out, well reasoned and appropriately drafted opinion regarding the coroner and the limits on her authority.”

The ruling comes after a nearly two year battle with current and former members of the Brown County Sheriff’s Office over Goldson’s death.

Goldson died in custody on October of 2013.  He was found hanging in his cell.   Varnau ruled the death a homicide in December of 2013.

After a lengthy investigation, the Ohio Bureau of Criminal Investigation concluded that  Goldson’s death a suicide in December of 2014.

A Brown County Grand Jury did not indict anyone in connection with Goldson’s death.

In January of 2015, five current and former members of the Brown County Sheriff’s Office filed a motion for a preliminary injunction  to prevent Varnau from opening a coroner’s inquest into Goldson’s death.

That request was granted, along with a ruling by Gusweiler in April of 2015 that the coroner may not continue her investigation pending a final decision. A hearing on the matter was held in March of this year, with Gusweiler ruling on the case on Sept. 8.

In the ruling, Gusweiler referred to the decision by the grand jury not to indict anyone in relation to Goldson’s death.

“Whether the Coroner agrees or not with that decision, she has no legal authority to conduct an inquest at this late date,” wrote Gusweiler.

“She completed her obligations under the law when she certified her findings (in December of 2013) and her authority ceased at that time.  It is up to the Courts to assign criminal responsibility if it exists.  The Grand Jury found that no such responsibility exists at this time.  The Coroner cannot change the decision of the Grand Jury.”

Referring to the hearings in the case, Gusweiler wrote, “The Coroner testified that she has not come across any new evidence to change her opinion as to the mode, manner and cause of death…She also testified that the subpoenas she issued demanded material that was not related to the mode, manner and cause of death.  For example, a current copy of the Brown County Sheriff’s Office retention policy with revision history was one of the subpoenaed items.”

Gusweiler continued, “She also subpoenaed phone records of the plaintiffs.  The Court would comment that this type of fishing expedition unrelated to the mode, manner and cause of death certainly exceeds any power or duty of the coroner…There is no legal authority for the coroner to conduct an inquest just to prove she still had the right decision.”

Gusweiler also issued a number of findings in the case, which included;

• “The Court finds that by subjecting deputies and corrections officers to this inquiry that are being implicated in the death of Zachary Goldson or are being accused of being complicit in his death.”

• “The Court finds that there is nothing more harmful to a law enforcement officer than to have members of the public believe that they had violated the law and been involved in the death of an inmate.  Once that allegation has been made and sent out to the public, harm to the officer’s reputation has been done.”

• “The actions of the coroner in subpoenaing Sheriff’s office records unrelated to the death of Zachary Goldson demonstrates a complete lack of good faith on the part of the Coroner and a continuation of her public feud with the Sheriff.”

• “By continuing to conduct an inquest after already determined the mode, manner and cause of death, the Coroner exceeds her statutory authority and exacerbates the loss of the Goldson family needlessly.”

After ruling that Varnau must pay $7500 in attorney’s fees, Gusweiler wrote, “The Court further finds that this is an award against Defendant Judith Varnau personally and not against the taxpayers of Brown County, Ohio.  After being served with a temporary injunction, she chose to deliberately violate that injunction and she is personally responsible for the payment of those attorney’s fees.

The ruling is appealable to the Ohio 12th District Court of Appeals.