Coroner featured in ‘Midnight in the Garden’ book dies at 88

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FILE – In this June 23, 2005 file photo, Dr. James C. Metts Jr., the Chatham County coroner, poses in front of a portrait of Brig. Gen. Casimir Pulaski in Savannah, Ga. Metts whose four decades as coroner in the Savannah area earned him a part in the bestselling book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” died Monday, Jan. 20, 2020, at his Savannah home, where he had been under hospice care. He was 88. (AP Photo/Stephen Morton, File)

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SAVANNAH, Ga. (AP) — Dr. James C. Metts Jr., a Savannah physician whose four decades serving as an elected coroner earned him a small part in the bestselling book “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” has died at age 88.

Metts died Monday at his Savannah home, where he had been under hospice care, Betty Ann Brannen of Brannen-Kennedy Funeral Homes said Wednesday.

During his 40 years as Chatham County coroner, Metts juggled a hectic schedule. By day, he worked as a physician at a clinic treating poor and uninsured patients. At night, and whatever odd hours police called him, he turned up at the scenes of homicides and other suspicious deaths in his role as coroner.

“With his practice of medicine and the coroner’s job, Jimmy never slept very much,” Savannah attorney Sonny Seiler, a friend of Metts’ since kindergarten, told The Associated Press in 2013. “You could find him almost any time of day, but you weren’t going to find him home in bed.”

Metts was first elected coroner when the job came open in 1972. He never faced opposition for re-election, and resigned from office in 2012 at age 81.

He was featured in a chapter of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” John Berendt’s 1994 nonfiction bestseller about a 1981 slaying that resulted in a Savannah antiques dealer standing trial for the shooting death of his young lover.

In the book, Metts describes the crime scene to a defense attorney and says he feels sympathy for the accused, considering the victim was ill-tempered and vitriolic.

“Hell, I’d have shot Danny Hansford too,” the book quotes Metts as saying.

In 1996, the coroner tried to solve a Revolutionary War mystery when he exhumed human remains buried beneath Savannah’s monument to Brig. Gen. Casimir Pulaski, a Polish nobleman killed fighting the British in 1779.

Experts spent nearly a decade trying to extract DNA to confirm whether the remains were Pulaski’s, but results were inconclusive. A different team took up the case years later and reported a DNA match with a Pulaski descendant in Poland.

Metts abruptly resigned as coroner in December 2012 after county auditors reported $141,000 in questionable payments to Metts. He paid back the money and never faced charges.

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