Every day in America, nearly 7,000 people die. When it happens suddenly, it is assumed that there will be an investigation, as seen in popular television crime dramas like CSI. In this video clip from Post Mortem, students will discover a very different reality: Death investigation in the United States ranges from excellent to completely incompetent thanks to a lack of federal standards and national regulation of the process or of those conducting the investigations.
For classrooms studying Social Studies, Government, Civics, Ethics and Law, this FRONTLINE teacher’s guide includes a set of themes and discussion questions to help students analyze and understand key current events. Watch the video chapter and start a discussion that examines the importance of competent death investigations. Go further into this topic with the Post Mortem lesson plan that asks students to examine death investigation across the United States and outline steps that lawmakers could take to improve the system.
Because there is no national regulation of the death investigation process, the competency of these investigations varies greatly from state to state, and incompetent death investigators face no serious consequences for poor work.
Not all death investigators are subject-matter experts. Forensic pathologists/medical examiners are trained to determine how and why people die, but elected officials, called coroners, typically have no medical training or background.
Issues such as lack of training, insufficient funding, poor skills and inadequate facilities can result in botched autopsies that miss homicides or result in false convictions.
Why does the death investigation process vary so much from state to state?
Why is competent death investigation important to both the living and the dead?
Describe how the lack of national standards allowed Dr. Thomas Gill to work as a death investigator in a number of locations across the United States despite his having previously been fired and arrested on the charge of drunken driving on his way to the morgue one morning.
What changes need to be made to ensure that all families and communities have qualified death investigators and competent death investigations?
Post Mortem Lesson Plan: “This Is Not Your CSI”
Map: Death in America
Interviews With Forensic Pathologists and Coroners
Cari Ladd, M.Ed., is an educational writer with a background in secondary education and media development. Previously, she served as PBS Interactive’s director of education, overseeing the development of curricular resources tied to PBS programs, the PBS TeacherSource website (now PBS Teachers), and online teacher professional development services. She has also taught in Maryland and Northern Virginia.
Lisa Prososki in an adjunct instructor and instructional design specialist who previously taught middle school and high school social studies, English, reading and technology courses for 12 years. Prososki has worked with many educational materials providers and has authored and edited numerous lesson plans and materials for various PBS programs over the past 15 years. In addition to teaching and instructional design projects, Prososki has authored one book.