Death Investigation in the US – Medical Examiner or Coroner?

autopsy table

It’s common, in cases which involve a death, for the determination, by autopsy, of manner and cause of that death to result in criminal charges being filed against a suspect.  And in many cases, the results of that autopsy will be the evidence that convicts or acquits that suspect.  Unfortunately, it’s all too common for the results of an autopsy to be unreliable or downright wrong.

A wrong result from an autopsy?  How can this happen?  Accurate determination of manner and cause of death by autopsy requires a medical examiner, or coroner, with a high level of competency and with special training.  Sadly, there are both coroners and forensic pathologists practicing in this country who are unfit for the job.  To understand how this can be, it’s important to understand the distinction between a “medical examiner” and a “coroner.”  Medical examiners are appointed, or hired, by the responsible governmental body, and are uniformly qualified as forensic pathologists.  Coroners are politically elected, and in some states, are not even required to be a doctor.  In fact, South Carolina only recently required that a coroner be a high school graduate.  Coroners who have no medical credentials what so ever will commonly hire or contract forensic pathologists to perform the actual autopsies, but the competence and credentials of those pathologists may be of little concern to the hiring coroner, and the most important determining factor controlling those hiring decisions will be the budget.  There is also evidence to suggest that because the coroner is an elected political position, that those officials may unduly favor law enforcement in the decisions that they make.

The problems with the coroner system have been egregious enough that the National Academy of Sciences, in it’s landmark 2009 report “Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States, A Path Forward,” recommended that the coroner system be abolished.

In February, 2011, PBS aired an hour long investigation into the coroner system in the US titled ‘Post Mortem.’  I personally found this to be illuminating, eye-opening, infuriating, and riveting.  You can watch the video, PBS Frontline, “Post Mortem” here.

4 responses to “Death Investigation in the US – Medical Examiner or Coroner?

  1. Reblogged this on JUSTICE FOR RAYMOND and commented:
    It is well past time to re-invent the ancient practice of electing unqualified coroners to preform a death investigation in the case of suspicious, unattended death or homicide. Some practicing ‘medical examiners’ have mail order credentials or none at all. Yet, their decision can’t be reversed unless and until they give their permission. Nowhere is there an appointed oversight board that has the right or power to audit the autopsy reports for accuracy.

  2. Reblogged this on myownheart.me and commented:
    Nowhere is there an appointed oversight board that has the right or power to audit the autopsy reports for accuracy.
    Yes like inVersailles Missouri where the coroner is a vetrenarian!!!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s