Harrison County

Coast coroner has never sent a white body to black-owned funeral home, attorney says

Harrison County Coroner Gary Hargrove said under oath that he does not recall once in 22 years sending a white body to one of the county's six black-owned funeral homes, an attorney for the homes' owners said during opening arguments in a federal civil case Monday.

Attorney Robert McDuff told the jury that Harrison County would argue loved ones usually choose where bodies go, with whites preferring white funeral homes and blacks selecting black funeral homes.

"People have a right to make their own choices," McDuff said. "That's not what we're talking about. We're talking about a government official who is spending public money based on race."

Of $160,000 the county spent with funeral homes from 2011-16, McDuff said, only $4,000 went to six black-owned funeral homes suing Hargrove and the county: Lockett-Williams Mortuary, Richmond-August Funeral Home, Hartwell's Christian Mortuary & Funeral Home, Marshall Funeral Home, Dickey Brothers Memorial Funeral Home and J.T. Hall Funeral Home.

Harrison County attorney Tim Holleman argued that loved ones usually decide where bodies go when the coroner is involved in a death investigation. When autopsies must be performed, he said, the bodies have been sent to two white-owned funeral homes with adequate freezer capacity.

Holleman said this was the decision of forensic pathologist Paul McGarry, who for many years performed autopsies under contract with the county.

After nearly falling down the stairs at one white-owned funeral home, McGarry performed all his autopsies at the other white-owned facility, Riemann Family Funeral Home, which has dedicated freezer space for the county. He even kept his equipment there.

Since McGarry died in January 2015, the county has been forced to send bodies to Jackson for autopsy, which has caused controversy over wait times for autopsies on the Coast.

Holleman said only one black-owned funeral home, J.T. Hall, had cooler space and evidence would show it was inadequate. Black-owned Marshall Funeral Home added a cooler within the last few years.

Unclaimed bodies also are sent to the white funeral homes, Holleman said, because the coroner rarely knows how long the body will be stored until next of kin is located and cold storage is needed.

Hargrove maintains that he has a rotation system for sending business to funeral homes, which are paid $150 for removing bodies from death scenes, $200 for indigent cremations and $200 for hosting autopsies.

But McDuff said evidence will show no rotation system was used. There was just case after case of bodies going to one of the two white-owned funeral homes when Hargrove determined the outcome.

Holleman indicated that Hargrove in most cases does not decide where a body will go. Even when he has jurisdiction over a body, state law gives next of kin and even guardians the right to decide to what funeral home a body will be spent.

The "release of body" forms Hargrove signs do not always note that a family member or other person associated with the deceased has directed where the body should go.

Hargrove's attorney, Joe Sam Owen, said the coroner's only objectives are to follow the law, protect the body and protect the county.

"His objective was not to promote anybody's economic benefit," Owen said. "His objective was not to promote racial discrimination."

Anita Lee can be reached at 228-896-2331 or @CAnitaLee1