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Post Mortem
Death Investigation in America

How Qualified Is Your Coroner?

Introduced to the colonies by early settlers, the role of coroner dates back to English common law. King Richard I developed the system in the 12th century, partly to fund the expensive Crusades. "Crowners" as they were then known, conducted inquests on the king's behalf to identify the deceased and investigate how they died, but more importantly, to collect death taxes on their estates.

The more than 2,000 coroner offices across the United States are vestiges of this royal system. Individual state statutes dictate whether death investigations -- which include examining the scene, reviewing medical records, performing autopsies and determining the manner and cause of death -- are conducted by a coroner or a medical examiner. As opposed to coroners, most medical examiner systems operate under the direction of a licensed physician, who is almost always trained in pathology and forensic science.

The Variations From State to State

More than 1,500 counties operate under a coroner system, where qualifications and expectations vary, according to the National Association of Medical Examiners.

  • Kansas, Ohio, and Louisiana require coroners to be certified forensic pathologists.
  • In Nebraska coroners are often also the county attorney.
  • Indiana and Wyoming require completion of a basic coroner-training course and some additional annual training. An 18-year-old made headlines when she was elected deputy coroner in Jay County, Ind. while still in high school.
  • Colorado state law encourages its coroners to have training in forensic death investigation methods, but it's not required.
  • North Dakota requires that coroners be licensed physicians, but only in counties of more than 8,000 people.
  • Georgia requires that you be at least 25 years old, have no felony convictions, have a high-school education and complete a week's training course in death investigation before you take the job.
  • In Wisconsin and West Virginia, non-physicians can serve as medical examiners.

Should We Replace Coroners?

A 2009 report by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommends abolishing the position of coroner and establishing new offices, run by medical examiners, with national standards for accreditation.

Many states are moving towards a medical examiner system, but the process has been slowed by the reality that coroners are usually written into a state constitution, are often backed by a local constituency and generally don't have large enough populations nor budgets to support the conversion.

Advocates for county coroners say the system, while perhaps not perfect, is the only practical way to conduct death investigations. They argue that there are neither the funds nor the public appetite to eliminate the office of the coroner.

"It was a pretty broad stroke," P. Michael Murphy, coroner of Clark County, Nev., told FRONTLINE of the NAS recommendations. "I don't know that the medical examiner community is prepared at this point to have that happen because there's not enough [certified forensic pathologists] out there. … I had a vacancy in our office for almost 18 months looking for a medical examiner."

Murphy argues that rather than replacing coroners, there should be more efforts to professionalize the service and raise standards that way. He suggests the establishment of a "coroner college" to improve and standardize education. Others propose federal grants for equipment, accreditation incentives, access to forensic laboratories, crime databases, and automated fingerprint identification systems.

Leonard Krout, coroner of Pope County, Ark. and president of the Arkansas Coroners Association, is part of a task force that plans to develop new training and education requirements for the state's 75 coroners. Currently, the only requirement is that the coroner be a state resident 18 or older. In addition to bringing uniform standards for death investigators across the state, Krout says he also hopes the NAS recommendations will lead to additional funding and training for coroners in small counties, where they are paid anywhere from $3,500 to $10,000 a year.

"We have a bunch of guys and gals who want to be death investigators," Krout says. "But if they get a weeklong vacation, they're not going to spend that time attending conferences or getting additional training. It needs to be built in."

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Posted Feburary 1, 2011

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