Effingham County coroner David Exley readily admits his job is far from enjoyable at times.
However, it’s rewarding anytime he can help someone understand how a loved one died.
“It’s not the most pleasant job in the world at times,” Exley told a group of South Effingham High School students recently. “At the same time, it’s gratifying you can give people some answers.”
Exley spoke to Cynthia Dean’s forensic science classes about the role he has in determining a person’s cause of death. Gayle Ergle’s anatomy class also sat in for Exley’s talk.
“We treat every case as a crime-type case until we know for sure otherwise,” he said.
Exley explained that, when he arrives at a scene, his job is to take charge of the body. He then works with law enforcement to agree on the cause of death.
As part of that, Exley determines if an autopsy needs to be done — though he is not the one who actually conducts the autopsy. The Effingham County coroner’s office handled 130 cases last year, he said, and about 30 of those were autopsied.
Exley covered topics such as how decomposition can be affected by weather conditions and how a body’s appearance helps in estimating how long a person had been dead. He also pointed out that using DNA evidence to identify a body is a much longer process than is portrayed on television shows.
Exley was the latest of several guest speakers hosted by the SEHS forensics science classes this year. Dean combines expert speakers with hands-on activities to teach the course.
For example, students have rolled and studied fingerprints, conducted ballistics testing on spent bullets and extracted DNA from human hair, animal hair and strawberries. Also, mock crime scenes are set up for the students to investigate.
“They do so much hands-on, it is amazing,” Dean said.
Another activity is to analyze blood stain patterns, with a substitute for actual blood. The “blood” spattered into various patterns for analysis is a red-colored concoction Dean makes with ingredients from her kitchen.
Along with the speakers and hands-on activities, the students delve into actual criminal cases.
“We really try to dig into what’s the truth and what really happens,” Dean said. “The kids do a lot of researching, individually as well as a group.”
Now in its fourth year at South Effingham, the forensics science course boasts 160 students this year. Students can take the class as an elective or as their fourth science rather than physics or chemistry.
As Effingham County has grown, Exley told the students, so has the case load for the coroner’s office. On the plus side, he said, the county had zero homicides last year.
“The number of traffic fatalities has increased every year,” Exley said. “We had 18 last year and 17 the year before.”
Though Effingham has grown, it is still a community where Exley knows many people and has worked for several years. That means sometimes having the difficult task of investigating the death of someone he knows.
He added that “children are one of the worst cases to work.” Exley acknowledged that sometimes he has to let out the stress of the job.
“I’ve cried, I’ve screamed, I’ve gone off to myself, I’ve talked to chaplains,” he said, “to get it out of my system.”