Death, under any circumstances, is no doubt devastating. When someone dies of natural causes or an illness, one of the typical first steps is notifying a funeral director. However, when the death is suspicious, unexpected or crime-related, the investigation is overseen by a coroner.
The job of the coroner dates back to 12th century England. Then known as crowners, these professionals were appointed by royalty to investigate unexplained or suspicious deaths – and to collect belongings of the deceased as a death tax. In 1862, William Penn appointed one of the first coroners in the American colonies. Early coroners did not have medical backgrounds, but instead relied on clues and common sense.
Coroners investigate suspicious or unexpected deaths. Local laws often dictate which types of circumstances legally require a coroner’s assistance; for example, a coroner will attend to deaths believed to be due to violence, accidents, abuse or death while incarcerated. During this process, coroners establish the date and time of death, cause of death, as well as the manner of death (natural, accidental, suicide, homicide or undetermined.) They also identify the deceased and notify immediate family members; or, if the deceased cannot be identified, begins an investigation.
Role in Crime Scenes and Criminal Cases
When the cause of death is suspected to be a crime, one of the coroner’s roles is to help manage the crime scene by collecting and recording evidence, and then securing or releasing the crime scene. Unless the coroner is also a medical examiner, she does not perform autopsies; however, she will arrange one if the case warrants it and work closely with medical professionals and forensic investigators. Coroners prepare reports on their findings and sometimes testify in court.
In modern day United States, coroners usually serve at the county level and are elected officials, or appointed by local governments. Qualifications vary from state to state. For example, in Georgia, coroners only need to complete a week-long course, while in Kansas, Ohio and Louisiana coroners must be certified forensic pathologists. Coroners often are funeral home directors or sheriffs, but some are doctors.
- PBS Frontline: How Qualified is Your Coroner
- Lycoming County: Coroner History
- Jessamine County Coroner: Homepage
- Rock County, Wisconsin: Coroner’s Office Frequently Asked Questions
- Clark County Nevada: Coroner-Medical Examiner FAQ
- NPR: Coroners Don’t Need Degrees to Determine Death
- Forensic Science Technicians
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