The judge’s decision to throw out a toxicology report doomed the prosecution’s case against Shane Lindsay in the overdose death of an Ashley teen, according to Washington County Coroner Mark Styninger.
Styninger said Wednesday he’s never had his toxicology reports questioned on the basis of proving chain of custody — a term used in court to refer to establishing that the blood and urine samples he submitted for testing were not tampered with during transport.
“The judge had his reasons, and I respect that,” Styninger said Wednesday. “If they are going to throw out the facts over some technicality that I’ve never heard called into question before — that is just a huge blow to the prosecution.”
Styninger said his official involvement with the case ends at what he provided to law enforcement regarding 18-year-old Dakota Ellerbusch’s death investigation.
The teenager’s grandfather found his body in a rural family-owned cabin in the early morning hours of Jan. 1.
“I was there as an expert witness on a death investigation,” Styninger said. “I am a coroner — I have seen thousands of dead people in my life.”
Jurors on Monday evening found Lindsay guilty of obstructing justice during the investigation — but not guilty of concealing Ellerbusch’s death.
Before the verdict was reached, Judge Daniel Emge dismissed three other charges: drug-induced homicide, unlawful delivery of a controlled substance and involuntary manslaughter. The allegation was that Lindsay provided drugs that caused the death of Ellerbusch. But the judge ruled the toxicology report could not be submitted as evidence, leaving those allegations without the support of any physical evidence.
Lindsay was released from police custody after the verdict and is scheduled to be sentenced at 9 a.m. Sept. 21. The 22-year-old could be sentenced to only probation, but a prison term of up to three years is also possible. The obstruction count carried the least severe sentence of the charges Lindsay faced.
Defense attorney Dennis Hatch, in his closing argument Monday, cast blame on the officials who investigated the teen’s death.
“They didn’t do jack in this case,” Hatch told jurors. “If anyone obstructed justice in this case it’s the Illinois state prosecutor — they let the Ellerbusch family down.”
Washington County State’s Attorney Daniel Bronke issued a brief statement Wednesday: “My response or comments are quite simple ... we didn’t get it done.”
My response or comments are quite simple ... we didn’t get it done.
Daniel Bronke, Washington County state’s attorney
Hatch served as the Washington County state’s attorney for eight years before being elected a circuit judge for Washington County in 2004. He left the bench in 2013 and then became the Washington County public defender.
Styninger, the coroner, said Wednesday that he felt Hatch’s past experience as a Washington County circuit judge was a “huge conflict of interest” and questioned the legality of it.
“He’s an excellent attorney. I just don’t think his influence as a former judge should be carried over in the courtroom, and that’s what I saw there,” Styninger said. “I have a problem with him being our public defender.”
Hatch declined to comment on Styninger’s remarks.
Hatch questioned Styninger during trial proceedings and repeatedly asked why the coroner did not have an autopsy conducted.
“No, I did not do an internal post-mortem examination as these are very costly and totally subjective in an overdose case,” Styninger wrote in an email to the News-Democrat. “In fact, with the increased opiate epidemic sweeping across our country, coroners nationwide have stopped ordering internal post-mortem examinations (autopsy).”
He added that if he did an autopsy for every overdose death he investigates, the county would be out of money within the first half of the year.
As coroner, Styninger said, this case was the first time he’s provided testimony as a witness at trial. He noted that he has given multiple depositions in other deaths.