GULFPORT, Miss. — Attorneys for funeral homes suing a Mississippi coroner said in court Monday that he has acknowledged that he can't remember ever sending a white person's body to one of the county's six black-owned funeral homes.
The federal lawsuit by the black-owned funeral homes accusing Harrison County and Coroner Gary Hargrove of illegally discriminating against them in favor of two white-owned competitors began Monday in Gulfport with jury selection and opening arguments.
Harrison County attorney Tim Holleman argues that relatives of the deceased usually decide where bodies go, and that bodies needing autopsies are sent to homes with enough cold storage to hold bodies for longer periods. Some black-owned funeral homes say they also have cold storage.
The Sun Herald reports a lawyer for the black funeral homes told the jury that Harrison County would argue the deceased's relatives usually choose where bodies go, with whites preferring white funeral homes and blacks selecting black funeral homes.
"People have a right to make their own choices," Rob McDuff said. "That's not what we're talking about. We're talking about a government official who is spending public money based on race."
U.S. District Judge Keith Starrett has indicated the key question will be proving that Hargrove decided where to direct bodies in each instance.
Holleman said that in most cases Hargrove doesn't decide where a body will go. Even when he has jurisdiction over a body, state law gives next of kin and even guardians the right to choose the funeral home to which a body will be sent.
Of $160,000 the county spent with funeral homes from 2011-16, McDuff said, only $4,000 went to the six black-owned funeral homes suing Hargrove and the county. Hargrove is white. Of Harrison County's roughly 200,000 residents, about 69 percent identify as white and about 24 percent identify as black, according to the most recent Census Bureau estimate.
Holleman said autopsies were done at a white-owned funeral home because that was the preferred location of a now-deceased pathologist. Since his death, autopsies have been done at the state Crime Lab near Jackson.
Holleman said only one black-owned funeral home had cooler space during the period in question and evidence will show it was inadequate. A second black-owned funeral home added a cooler more recently.
Unclaimed bodies also are sent to the white-owned funeral homes for cold storage, Holleman said, because the coroner rarely knows how long the body will be stored until next of kin is located.
Hargrove maintains he sends business to funeral homes on a rotating basis. But McDuff said evidence will show no rotation. Plaintiffs argue that each funeral home should have gotten one-eighth of the business. The six black funeral homes say they're owed $870,000 in lost profits from county business and associated funerals from 2012 to 2016.