I could be wrong but I have very low expectations for the coroner’s inquest that will take place tomorrow, Thursday, in Versailles, MO, regarding the drowning death of Brandon Ellingson.
In all my years in journalism, I never witnessed a coroner’s inquest, but, nevertheless, and I can’t imagine any startling revelations or determinations coming out of the one tomorrow.
As The Star’s Laura Bauer said in her back-to-back, front-page Sunday stories, six jurors will hear testimony, and they will be asked to determine the manner in which Ellingson died.
The Morgan County prosecutor, Dustin G. Dunklee, will take the jury’s determination under advisement and decide whether charges should be filed.
M.B. Jones, Morgan County coroner, told Bauer that the inquest would serve as an independent review of the case. Among the issues likely to be addressed, he said, were the type of life vest that Highway Patrol Officer Anthony Piercy used and how he put it on Ellingson. (He used the wrong kind and put it on incorrectly.)
Jones said jurors will likely hear more about the Highway Patrol’s water-safety protocols and procedures.
There are three reasons I’m not optimistic about the jury getting to the bottom of the case.
First, this is strictly a local affair where most of the players know one another. The jurors, who have already been chosen, may well know one another. This is a county of about 20,000 residents, so nothing like Jackson County’s 674,000. The prosecutor, Dunklee, is a local lawyer who was elected in 2010. He’s probably in his upper 30s and most likely has never been involved in a case of this magnitude. Moreover, Trooper Piercy has a higher-than-average profile locally, having been on the school board of the Morgan County R-II district since 2012.
Second, Jones, the coroner, hinted at a foregone conclusion in a quote he gave to Bauer:
“That boy shouldn’t have died. We can’t bring him back, but maybe we can make changes.”
I don’t know about you but it sounds to me like Jones thinks has already concluded it was an accident and that if Piercy was guilty of negligence, it didn’t rise to the criminal level.
Third, it appears that there were no witnesses to contradict Piercy’s assertion that Ellingson stood up, moved toward the side of the patrol boat and either fell or jumped into the water, as Piercy zipped along at who-knows-how-many-miles-per-hour over choppy waters.
(Side note here: I don’t know if Piercy is going to testify — Jones has said he intends to call four witnesses — but if he doesn’t, you can write the inquest off as a total whitewash.)
At least one of Ellingson’s parents, father Craig, told Bauer he planned to attend the inquest.
“These jurors, they need to put themselves in my place,” he told Bauer. “Would they want their son put in a boat like that, be treated like that?”
I think these jurors, while they might want to put themselves in Craig Ellingson’s place, will be more inclined to protect their own. This is the Ozarks; these folks stick together.