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An Inquest Into the Texas Way of Declaring Death

Some news for the armchair detectives second-guessing how U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's death in Texas was declared over the phone: Not every dead body gets an autopsy, and Texas is no outlier in that department.

The Cibolo Creek Ranch in West Texas, where Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was found dead on February 13, 2016.

For all of the armchair detectives second-guessing the manner in which U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia's death in Texas was officially declared over the phone by a county judge, here's some news: Unlike on television, not every dead body undergoes an autopsy, and Texas is no outlier in that department. 

"I think everybody did what they were supposed to do," said Gene Terry, executive director of the Texas Association of Counties, commenting on the events that took place after a vacationing Scalia was found dead Saturday at the Cibolo Creek Ranch resort in Presidio County. 

County Judge Cinderela Guevara determined Scalia, 79, died of natural causes over the phone after being called from the ranch. 

That Scalia's body was not autopsied — as was the wish of his family — has spawned hundreds of Internet conspiracy stories. But Terry and other county officials point out that autopsies are only requested when foul play is suspected, and the public's expectation of an autopsy for everyone is unrealistic, costly and unnecessary.

"If you go in a room and there's a body on the floor and there's blood all over the place and a gun on the floor, that's an entirely different situation," Terry said. 

About two dozen states including Texas, use a local coroner system under which someone is elected or appointed to verify that a deceased individual is, well, dead. 

In Texas, the coroner's role falls to the 817 elected justices of the peace. The JPs marry couples, handle small claims disputes and come when called, usually by law enforcement, to verify death when someone doesn't die in a hospital or when a doctor cannot — or will not — sign a death certificate. 

"I'm the coroner, and everything," explained David Beebe, one of the two justices of the peace in Presidio County who were called on Saturday to come to Cibolo Creek Ranch, 28 miles southwest of Marfa, after Scalia, a guest of the resort's owner, was discovered dead in his room.

But both Beebe and Presidio County's other JP, Juanita Bishop, were too far away, so the Presidio County Sheriff's Office contacted the county's chief executive, or county judge, Guevara. 

What happened next speaks to the remoteness of Texas geography and the nation's haphazard system of managing death.

Thea Whalen, an attorney who trains JPs at the Texas Justice Training Center in Austin, said the state's size and population distribution is something many fail to grasp. 

About 75 percent of the state's population lives along an urban triangle anchored by Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Houston. It's a state so large that El Paso is closer to San Diego, Calif., than to Houston. Three-fourths of the state's counties have populations at or under 50,000 people. 

"I think that's something folks outside of Texas don't really get," Whalen said. "It's such a large geographical area."

While autopsies are done in Texas and can be requested by a JP when foul play is suspected, there are only 13 medical examiner offices, far fewer than one for each of the state's 254 counties. 

Guevara, the county judge called to verify that Scalia was dead, was a justice of the peace for 25 years before being elected Presidio County's chief executive in 2014, and media reports show she followed the Justice Training Center's guidelines and state law.

She talked to law enforcement at the ranch and to Scalia's physician, as is required before verifying a death. Guevara, who did not return phone calls from The Texas Tribune, came to the conclusion, according to media reports, that Scalia died of natural causes.

"The law does not indicate that you have to go in person," Whalen said. "Our justices of the peaces do not declare someone dead. They're to investigate and determine the cause of death."

Reporter Jordan Rudner contributed to this story.

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