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Newton coroner’s attorney says removal from office unlikely
He says evidence detailed in county’s petition inaccurate, based on hearsay
Coroner swearing in
From left, Dorothea Bailey-Butts holds her hand on a Bible held by husband Stanley Butts as she receives the oath of office to be county coroner from Probate Judge Melanie Bell Dec. 17. She took office Jan. 1. - photo by Tom Spigolon

COVINGTON, Ga. — The Newton County coroner's new attorney predicted a petition to remove her from office will be unsuccessful because the charges in it are inaccurate and based on hearsay evidence.

Fayetteville attorney Wayne Kendall said he and Coroner Dorothea Bailey-Butts are waiting on the Georgia Coroners Training Council to respond to his inquiry about the procedure for dealing with County Manager Lloyd Kerr's petition seeking to remove her from office.

Kerr alleged her actions during her first 29 days in office showed she was "incompetent" and cited such incidents as refusal to move a body from a fatal wreck scene and sloppy treatment in dealing with a dead hotel guest.

Kendall noted state law says the training council can only recommend removal. 

A Superior Court judge is the only official empowered to remove a coroner from office, Kendall said.

“No Superior Court judge is going to do that," he said.

"You can't simply remove an elected official in this state simply by making up a bunch of hearsay allegations like Mr. Kerr did — talking about what a bunch of other people said," Kendall said.

"This is all for naught and if they had any real scruples they would go ahead and withdraw because it's going nowhere," Kendall said.

He said he believed the charges against her stem from her defeat of a longtime and well-liked office holder in the Nov. 3 General Election.

"(Kerr's) problem should be with the electorate, not her," he said.

Newton County government officials declined comment based on the case’s status as pending litigation, said spokesman Bryan Fazio.

Bailey-Butts defeated three-term incumbent Tommy Davis for the coroner’s position that is required — among other duties — to investigate suspicious deaths and determine if a medical examiner must conduct an autopsy.

Kendall said some in Newton County may not believe she was qualified for the position. 

However, Kendall said she was "duly elected, end of story."

"What happened here, it seems to me, is some people are disgruntled with the election results. The real beef should be with the voters," he said.

Kendall alleged the charges also may be racially motivated because of the general problem some longtime residents have with a Black female holding an office formerly held by white men.

He noted he represented a Black female mayor of Gordon, Georgia, in 2015 who replaced a white male. 

After a group of residents sought to have her removed after about six weeks due to "incompetence," the Georgia Supreme Court ruled in her favor. She kept the position and Kendall was awarded more than $80,000 in legal fees, he said.

"(That) is the same thing that's going to happen over here in Newton County," he said.

He said it would “be one thing” to say Bailey-Butts was “incompetent after having been on the job awhile and had gone through training and was violating training.” 

However, Bailey-Butts "hadn't even had basic training yet" before she went to work as coroner Jan. 1, Kendall said.

Bailey-Butts only recently attended her first training course after she said an initial training session was postponed because of COVID-19, she told an Atlanta TV news reporter.

Kendall noted state law says a coroner can only be removed from office for a few specific reasons.

The law states the reasons include “incapacity or misbehavior in office,” such as conviction of a crime.

He said he disputed such allegations as the one in which she allegedly cut the clothes off a suicide victim.

“There were people on the scene who dispute all of that,” Kendall said.

In addition, he denied the assertion she had refused to transport bodies as required in state law. 

A dispute between her and some first-responders shown on video was about her removing a body that had been entrapped. She otherwise had transported “numerous bodies,” he said.

Bailey-Butts has told officials she wants the county government to pay her legal fees after Kerr on Jan. 29 asked the Coroners Training Council to seek an emergency injunction to prevent her from continuing in the elected position "effective immediately."

If the Council votes to remove her certification, the coroner can request a hearing to contest the action, the law states.

The law also states the process for removing a coroner mirrors the process for removing a Superior Court clerk.

If the Council also recommends removing her from office, it must inform the governor who must form a committee of coroners to investigate the charges and recommend if she should be suspended for up to 60 days.

The governor then can recommend the District Attorney file a removal petition; and a Superior Court judge would make the ultimate decision to remove the coroner from office following a hearing before a jury.