A Missouri coroner, who presided over the death investigation into a suspicious shooting of a Black man, is facing calls to resign over a series of racist social media posts.
Crawford County Coroner Darren Dake is facing pressure to step down for comparing Black Lives Matter protesters to the Ku Klux Klan and Nazism, in two Facebook posts he allegedly shared more than four years ago.
“If you’re going to condemn hate then you have to condemn all of it,” Dake, then deputy coroner, wrote on his personal Facebook in August 2017. “KKK and BLM are the same racist coin.”
Dake didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment regarding calls for him to step down when contacted by telephone, text, and email. He’s denied any mishandling of the investigation.
The elected official’s posts were in response to violent clashes that unfolded between white supremacists and protesters during Charlottesville’s ‘Unite the Right’ rally.
Last month, Dake oversaw the death investigation into the shooting of Justin King, a Black-Filipino salesman, who was fatally shot by a white neighbor in a trailer park roughly 75 miles southwest of St. Louis.
A six-person jury panel ruled King’s November death a justifiable homicide on Jan. 11.
The King family’s legal team have since accused the coroner’s office and county prosecutor of withholding prominent evidence in the inquest, and colluding in a bid to shield King’s suspected killer in the case, which they say has been derailed by racial bias.
“My son happens to be the wrong color in the right case and he is a victim of this situation,” John King, Justin King’s father, told The Daily Beast. “It’s blatant racial discrimination.”
The county coroner’s extremist Facebook posts have only deepened the family’s suspicions that racial prejudice slanted the case.
“If they don’t think Black Lives Matter, then my son’s life doesn’t matter,” John King, 56, added. “That’s exactly what’s happened. His life didn’t matter. They weren’t concerned about finding justice.”
On Aug. 17, 2017, Dake also shared a video on Facebook from an alt-right content creator that equated Black Lives Matter to Adolf Hitler.
In a comments thread on his wall, the coroner appeared to support another user’s assertion that Black History Month and the Congressional Black Caucus should also be scrapped, according to screenshots of the exchange.
Nimrod Chapel Jr., the President of Missouri’s NAACP, and the King family’s counsel, called the posts “horrific.”
“He’s tone deaf to the realities that [Black] people in America and Missouri face,” Chapel told The Daily Beast. “The Black Lives Matter movement is literally saying, ‘Black lives matter, please don’t kill us.’ To call that an extremist group, that’s insane. And if that’s his world view, then I don’t understand how Dake can function in a public capacity.”
On Wednesday, Chapel, who’s calling for Dake’s immediate resignation, filed formal complaints against Dake with both the state’s newly created Coroner Standards and Training Commission, as well as the Missouri Coroners and Medical Examiners Association.
“The statements and images depicted are incongruent with his professional responsibility to all Missourians in while protecting his free speech under the first amendment demonstrate his reluctance and preconceived biases which prevent him from completing his professional responsibilities in a way required by statute,” the complaint stated.
The Coroner Standards and Training Commission, however, can’t yet convene, and is awaiting a full appointment of sitting members by the state’s governor, Mike Parson. The accountability commission was born out of a 2019 senate bill, following a botched coroner’s investigation into the mysterious 2011 death of 27-year-old Jayke Minor.
In Missouri, coroners, many of whom lack the proper forensic and medical training, are publicly elected officials bound to a four-year term. The only qualifications include being a U.S. citizen who has lived in the state for a year, and having resided in the county they’ll serve for six months.
“Public servants have an obligation not only to uphold the values and community standards in a way commensurate with their responsibility in their position but must also provide service to the communities and families within their responsibility,” the King family’s complaint added. “In this case, the coroner has provided no information directly to the family in response to questions prior to the coroner’s inquest, only provided truncated pieces of information in the coroner’s inquest and has been antagonistic, unhelpful and overtly inconsiderate to the victims. On belief and information Caucasian families have not been treated in the same way.”
Further review of Dake’s social media profile revealed several posts promoting debunked election fraud and COVID-19-related anti-vaccine conspiracies, as well as images of himself wearing a “Let’s Go Brandon” facemask. He also openly described racial sensitivity training for police as “crazy.” Dake is online friends with at least one of the six presiding jurors from King’s inquest.
“It’s stupid to do that, certainly, I think, despicable that somebody would have those kinds of opinions — whether, it’s an elected official or not, anybody to put that stuff out there is just not something that shows good judgment,” Dr. Michael Graham, a forensic pathologist and Deputy Medical Examiner for St. Louis County, told The Daily Beast.
Graham acknowledged Dake’s alleged racial bias online doesn’t necessarily mean the coroner’s determination in King’s death was flawed, but agreed it didn’t inspire public confidence either.
“When you put stuff out like that, then when you do make a judgment, even if it happens to be right, the people are going to question it,” Graham said. “I can see where this would engender mistrust. But the fact that there’s mistrust here, doesn’t mean he has the wrong answer.”
In 2020, Dake, a Republican, was elected Crawford County Coroner after more than two decades of working as the office’s deputy coroner. He's a nationally certified medicolegal death investigator, a Christian life coach, a podcast host, and a self-published writer, who has also described himself as a “recovering porn addict,” according to his own author biography on Amazon, additional screenshots show. The erotica addiction reference has since been deleted from Dake’s page this week. A spokesperson for Amazon confirmed the author page was registered to a personal email associated with Dake.
County officials also declined to comment on calls for Dake’s resignation or the Facebook posts in question.
“I believe it would be inappropriate to comment at this early stage,” Crawford County Prosecutor David S. Smith said.
Sheriff Darin Layman, who was responsible for summoning jurors in the inquest, also denied allegations that racial bias undermined King’s death investigation.
“This investigation was never about a racial bias as there was no evidence of such from any of my investigators,” Layman said in a statement.
On Nov. 3, 2021, King was shot to death by his neighbor following a physical struggle on the man’s porch. The shooter, who claimed he acted in self-defense, told investigators King had banged on his door and threatened to kill him prior to forcing entry to his trailer.
King suffered three bullet wounds to his leg, head, and shoulder, according to a forensic autopsy. The third shot ultimately struck his heart, killing him, officials said. King’s toxicology indicated he had methamphetamine, cannabinoids, and caffeine in his system.
The Crawford County Prosecutor, citing the state’s “castle doctrine” law, which permits state residents to enact lethal force against intruders if they have a reasonable belief they’re in danger, ultimately declined to file criminal charges against King’s shooter.
King’s official autopsy was conducted by forensic pathologist Dr. Carl Stacy, whose findings were presented at the coroner’s inquest. Nicole Bussell of the Crawford County Coroner’s Office assisted as the death report’s investigator. The family, however, had also previously voiced concern that officials intentionally withheld post-mortem images from jurors at the proceedings.
“I wanted to see his body, I wanted to see where the bullet wounds were when they happened, all these things, the trajectories of these bullets,” John King said. “Was he shot from behind? Was he shot in the front? They purposefully didn’t show those things …if they would have shown those things it would have been crystal clear that it was a premeditated murder.”
A copy of the inquest's jury verdict in King’s case lists viewing post-mortem images as a prerequisite oath requirement for inquest jurors above their signatures.
“You were supposed to see the images,” Chapel added. “That’s one of the things the coroner’s inquest is for. They were just told he got shot ‘here, here, and here,’ and they never got to observe that for themselves.”
The typed phrase “viewed photographs of the body,” appears to have been underlined by jurors in pen or pencil on a copy of the inquest's verdict, above redacted signatures certifying the panel’s ruling. The family has questioned why the form was signed if the images weren’t shown.
The Kings’ lawyer has since characterized the discrepancy as a falsification of evidence.
“[Dake] requested and allowed the jurors to certify the juror form that stated that they observed pictures of Justin King,” the family’s formal complaint added. “Dake admitted that the jury had not been provided a picture of the deceased in the coroner’s inquest prior to submitting the false document knowingly and with intention to Crawford County. We believe that conduct is inappropriate and illegal as well as violation of his professional responsibilities.”
King’s autopsy images were purposefully withheld, officials confirmed, to avoid publicly traumatizing the family during the proceedings.
“The prosecutor and I decided that those images would not be useful to decide whether or not [the shooter] acted in self-defense or felony murder,” Dake previously said. “We know what bullet holes look like, we did not see how that would do anything to help the jury and for the comfort of the family, showing all these dead pictures of their son.”
Autopsy images and other sections of the case file were since turned over to the family’s legal team.
No such law appears to exist in Missouri which legally requires a jury to view post-mortem images in a coroner’s inquest.
However, according to revised state Statute § 58.360, “the jury, having viewed the body by photographic, electronic, or other means, heard the evidence, and made all the inquiry in their power, shall draw up and deliver to the coroner their verdict upon the death under consideration, in writing under their hand, and the same shall be signed by the coroner.”
“That would be up to each individual coroner that’s doing the inquest whether or not they should be shown,” Steve Murell, a board member and past president for the Missouri Coroners and Medical Examiner’s Association, told the Daily Beast. “Unless you needed the photos, I probably would not show them myself.”
Murrell, who serves as Laclede County Coroner in southwest Missouri, said he’s conducted two coroner’s inquests in his career, adding he, too, opted both times to withhold images from jurors. However, he noted that it was odd that jurors in King’s case signed a verdict form acknowledging they’d viewed photos when they hadn’t.
“If the jurors signed off they’d seen it, then to me, they saw them,” Murrell added. When I sign my name, I make sure I know what I’m signing, and if part of that is not true, then they shouldn’t sign it.”
However, some forensic investigators in other parts of the country suggested it was abnormal for autopsy images not to be shown at such proceedings.
“Going to an inquest, everything is available,” said Vidal Herera, a retired Los Angeles County and nationally recognized coroner investigator, who founded a private autopsy firm, 1-800 AUTOPSY. “The jury needs to see those photographs… Those photographs are extremely important because photographs do not lie.”
Herera, 69, who has more than four decades of experience as a death investigator, has conducted approximately 20,000 autopsies in his career. He noted coroner inquest laws vary state by state.
“At the end of the day, justice wasn’t held because they did not have the opportunity to review those photographs and those are extremely, extremely important,” he added.
King’s family, who have also called on the FBI to open a civil rights investigation into the shooting death, is planning a rally on Feb. 5. outside the Crawford County courthouse in Steelville, Missouri.
“Justin deserves justice at all costs,” John King said. “We’re definitely going to march to let the world know that this was not done right.”