Cases stuck in coroner's mind

Retiring Dunedin coroner Jim Conradson has his last day in court yesterday. Photo by Jane Dawber.
Retiring Dunedin coroner Jim Conradson has his last day in court yesterday. Photo by Jane Dawber.
Retiring Dunedin coroner Jim Conradson has worked on probably more than 1500 inquests in his 38 years in the job, but two cases will stick firmly in his mind.

The inquest into the 1990 Aramoana murders, where 13 people were killed by gunman David Gray, affected him, as did the death of a 19-year-old student on Baldwin St in 2001 after a ride in a wheelie bin went tragically wrong.

Both inquests were emotionally charged and horrifying for the community for different reasons, he said.

Mr Conradson had his last day in court as Dunedin coroner yesterday.

Southern region coroner David Crerar was appointed to the new role in 2007, but Mr Conradson had been working on any historic cases.

Mr Conradson said on average about 200 deaths each year were referred to the coroner and of those, about 40 would go to inquest.

He was the coroner for cases such as that of baby Iris, a 23-month old girl who endured prolonged abuse over the last four to six weeks of her life, receiving two fractured legs, two fractured arms and head injuries.

Mr Conradson was also the coroner when the Bain family was killed in 1994.

He decided at the time he did not need to conduct a formal inquest because he was satisfied the evidence presented in court had established the cause and circumstances of the deaths.

Mr Conradson (72) grew up in Hokitika, completed his law degree in Christchurch and spent years practising law in Dunedin before accepting a coroner's role about 1971.

At that time there were dozens of coroners across the country, compared with the 13 coroners and chief coroner working today.

There were coroners in areas such as Mosgiel, Port Chalmers and Milton.

Mr Conradson continued to practise law until the late 1980s.

The job of coroner could take an emotional toll, as it meant constantly dealing with distressed families who had lost a family member in an often violent or unnatural way.

"For a lot of people, they probably see the law as a bit of an intrusion into the grieving process, and I don't blame them for that."

The process of inquests had not changed in his time, but there was an increasing emphasis on coroners making recommendations to the public, something he had not found easy.

"Sometimes it is hard to do it in a way where you are not being overly critical of the dead person, or even worse, the dead person's family.

"Sometimes the circumstances of the death are so obvious you hardly need to point it out."

Mr Conradson criticised the new Coroner's Bill in 2006, calling it "high-handed and clumsy".

The Coroners Act 2006 took effect on July 1, 2007 and it brought a move from 55 mostly part-time coroners to regionally-based, full-time coroners.

He said the nature of deaths referred to coroners had not changed much.

There were still large numbers of suicides, but it seemed more young people were taking their own lives now than in the past.

Mr Conradson said he was looking forward to retirement and would continue his involvement with a couple of community organisations.

He would also call into the police station, a place where he had formed many friendships.

"They haven't taken my key off me yet. When it stops working, I'll know they don't want me back."

sarah.harvey@odt.co.nz

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