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Location guides how Pa. deaths are scrutinized

Plus, how to apply for student debt forgiveness.


A daily newsletter by Spotlight PA

Your Postmaster: Colin Deppen
October 19, 2022
Coroner gaps, double votes, state exoneration, fracked out, newspaper strike, official correspondence, and student debt relief. It's Wednesday.

A lack of standardization and adequate funding has left Pennsylvania with a patchwork coroner system marked by huge workloads, inconsistent training, and, in at least one case, rusty medical equipment. 

Pennsylvania coroners investigate and rule on deaths, initiate autopsies, complete death certificates, and report information vital to legal, public health, and public safety issues. But a new study found widespread disparities that are particularly pronounced in the state's rural areas.

Read Spotlight PA's full report: How well a death in Pennsylvania will be investigated depends largely on where someone dies.

THE CONTEXT: According to the Center for Rural Pennsylvania study referenced above, county coroners and medical examiners — the people who investigate suspicious deaths and suss out foul play — lack adequate funding, transparency, and training. 

Among the study's recommendations: stricter coroner qualification, certification, and training requirements; and a state-commissioned study of how effective a more centralized medical examiner system would be. 

The authors also advocate for incentives for people studying forensic pathology, as well as autopsy facility inspections, a set minimum number of morgue spaces, and more investment in forensic pathology facilities. 

And while most Pennsylvania coroners are elected, public health experts have long questioned whether the positions should be elected at all, noting hired coroners don't have to meet residency requirements, which allows counties to attract applicants from outside their own borders. 


"Obviously, this was designed to inflict punishment on anyone who attempted to remove the sign."

—Upper Makefield Township Police on political signs found booby-trapped with razor blades; a resident was injured trying to remove one of the signs, which had been placed on their property without permission, per police
Read our complete coverage, plus key dates, campaign finance data, sample ballots & more at our Election Center 2022 website.

Spotlight on the Issues: Where Mastriano and Shapiro stand on:

»  College Funding & Student Debt
»  Energy & Environment
»  Crime & Justice
»  LGTBQ Rights
»  Abortion, Medicaid, & Opioids
»  Rural health care & broadband

More issue analyses will be published in the coming weeks. 

A complete listing of Spotlight PA voter guides:  

»  Your complete guide to voting in the Nov. 8 election
»  Everything you need to know about mail ballots
»  Your complete guide to the candidates for governor
»  How to vet the candidates on your midterm ballot
»  No constitutional amendments on the ballot, but big ones loom
»  How to serve as a poll worker on Nov. 8
»  These Pa. voters haven't missed a Nov. election in 50+ years
»  How Spotlight PA will cover Pennsylvania's 2022 election

En Español:

»  Una guía básica para investigar a los candidatos
»  Cómo trabajar como trabajador electoral el 8 de noviembre
»  Todo lo que necesita saber para votar por correo
»  Su guía completa de los candidatos a gobernador

Support Spotlight PA's vital election coverage by making a gift now.
» INQUIRER: How Mastriano 'wielded the power of Facebook' (paywall)
» LNP: U.S. Rep. Smucker vs. a 'converted Democrat' in PA-11 (paywall)
» NBC NEWS: DSCC launches new ad in Pa. targeting Oz on abortion
» PENNLIVE: GOP looks to woo Pa.'s growing Latino electorate (paywall)
» SEMAFOR: John Fetterman on DA Krasner, crime, and punishment
» WESA: Where are Oz, Fetterman campaign dollars coming from?

» GOVERNOR'S GUIDE LIVE: Tonight at 6 via Zoom, Spotlight PA is hosting a free panel on who the candidates for governor are and how their administrations would impact you. Register for the event here and submit your questions to events@spotlightpa.org

The Field of Light at Longwood Gardens, via @lora_explores. Have an interesting image of your own to share? Send us your photos and art, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
IN CONFLICT: A process that caught dozens of accidental double votes in Philadelphia in 2020 may be limited or stopped altogether this time. The reason? A GOP-imposed condition on millions of dollars in state "election integrity grants." To get the money, counties must count mail ballots without stopping. Philadelphia's double-vote safeguard process could violate the rule, The Inquirer (paywall) reports.

LONG OVERDUE: Ninety years after Alexander McClay Williams, then 16, was killed by Pennsylvania for a crime he did not commit, he was officially exonerated on Monday. His sister and the last living member of his immediate family, Susie Williams Carter, received the proclamation in Media and wept, per the Delco Times: "You don't know what my mother and father went through... Justice. God loves justice."

WATER WAIT: Months after a frack out at a gas well in Greene County, residents in one community are still dependent on bottled water, some having to drive across the West Virginia border to find enough of it for their families, per PublicSource. The gas driller, EQT, and the state are still investigating, while testing by a Duquesne University professor found signs of significant water well contamination.

ON STRIKE: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette journalists are officially on strike, WESA reports, following workers in the paper's production and advertising departments who took to the picket lines earlier this month. The journalists, who've been without a new contract since 2017, want the paper's owners to return to the bargaining table. But not everyone in the newsroom is on board with the work stoppage.

NO-SHOWS: State Sen. Camera Bartolotta (R., Washington) sent a letter urging the state's Department of Environmental Protection not to attend a public forum in her district on the health risks of fracking. A week later, the DEP and health researchers from Pitt backed out of the event. DEP told StateImpact that Bartolotta's letter had no bearing on its decision and that it only dropped out because Pitt did.

BUG OUT: Scientists are experimenting with new ways to kill the spotted lanternfly, National Geographic (paywall) reports. They're armed with poison nets, tree injections, fluorescent powders, and a list of natural predators.

SPONGE CITIES: Wired looks to Pittsburgh in a piece on "sponge cities," places where officials are adding green spaces to absorb more water in preparation for the wetter weather wrought by climate change. 

TREE OF LIFE: A celebrity-produced documentary on the 2018 mass shooting at Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue will air Oct. 26 on HBO Max, TribLIVE reports. Four years have passed since the mass murder.

TENTATIVE DEAL: Philadelphia Museum of Art employees got a new union contract after years of bargaining and a 19-day strike, while The Inquirer (paywall) reports the museum's embattled director got a souvenir

DEBT RELIEF: The application process for President Joe Biden's federal student debt forgiveness program is underway and the online application portal is now open. CNBC has a user's guide.

Unscramble and send your answer to scrambler@spotlightpa.org. We'll shout out winners here, and one each week will get some Spotlight PA swag. Answers submitted by 6 p.m. on issue date will be counted.

Yesterday's answer: Platform

Congrats to our daily winners: Becky C., Craig W., Mike B., Irene R., Michelle T., Joel S., Don H., Patricia M., Beth T., Elaine C., Wendy A., Susan N.-Z., Chuck M., Kevin M., Daniel M., David W., Barbara F., John A., George S., Kimberly D., Al M., Samantha S., John F., Antoinette F., Tish M., Kim C., Marsha B., Steve D., Stanley J., Jim A., James B., Dianne K., Nancy S., Judith D., Starr B., Cindy I., Bill S., Joshua V., Jane R., and David M.
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Spotlight PA is an independent, non-partisan newsroom powered by The Philadelphia Inquirer in partnership with PennLive/The Patriot-News, TribLIVE/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and WITF Public Media.

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