Coroners — A Workshop Recap

Colorado Coroners AssociationLast month, our RWA chapter’s speaker was Chris Hern­don, a retired deputy coro­ner. A lot of her talk was about cases she’d worked on, includ­ing graphic pic­tures, which doesn’t really lend itself to a pleas­ant blog post, but she did pro­vide a lot of inter­est­ing facts.

First—if you’re writ­ing crime fic­tion make sure you know whether the state you’re writ­ing about uses Med­ical Exam­in­ers or Coro­ners. They’re not the same. Coro­ners are elected. His­tor­i­cally, coro­ners were tax col­lec­tors in Eng­land, sent to places where peo­ple had died in order to make sure nobody skipped out on pay­ing death taxes.

In Col­orado, to be elected Coro­ner, all you have to be is over 18 and not a felon. Fairly recently, a 40 hour train­ing pro­gram was initiated.

Med­ical Exam­in­ers are appointed, and have med­ical degrees.

Since Chris Hern­don worked in Col­orado, her infor­ma­tion per­tains to this state, and that’s what I’m going to be relay­ing here. If you’re set­ting a story else­where, do your homework!

Only a physi­cian or a coro­ner can pro­nounce death. They work WITH, not FOR Law Enforcement.

They assume cus­tody of the body and pre­pare it for removal. They pre­serve the chain of custody.

Many times, bod­ies are not clearly iden­ti­fi­able. 95% of the time, iden­ti­ties are “pre­sump­tive” or ten­ta­tive. Just because you find a female body in the home of John and Jane Doe, you can’t pre­sume the body belongs to Jane.

In cases where bod­ies are badly decom­posed, burned, or skeletalized—where facial fea­tures are unrec­og­niz­able, pos­i­tive ID is gen­er­ally based on foren­sic evi­dence. Or when there is a dis­as­ter, and there are a lot of bod­ies, foren­sics will be used for ID. For those of us used to tele­vi­sion, we imme­di­ately think of DNA. The advan­tage is it’s pos­i­tive. The dis­ad­van­tage is that it requires pro­fes­sional train­ing, a lab­o­ra­tory, and takes a long time. Locally, 6 weeks is a ‘rush’ job. And, of course, there has to be some­thing to match it to.

Pathol­o­gists do the autop­sies, although the coro­ners may assist. A pathol­o­gist is an MD with another 8 years of cer­ti­fi­ca­tion. Autop­sies aren’t done in every case. If a death is sus­pi­cious or unat­tended, or if a per­son has died after being admit­ted to the hos­pi­tal within 24 hours, they’ll do an autopsy. About 30% of inves­ti­gated cases will have autop­sies. Nation­wide, it’s more like 10%.

Here in Col­orado, more peo­ple die from pre­scrip­tion drug over­doses than in car acci­dents. Also, the ratio of homi­cide to sui­cide here is 1:12. In New York, it’s 5:1.

Some sta­tis­tics about Man­ner of Death (not to be con­fused with Cause of Death, which would be things like gun­shot wounds, stran­gu­la­tion, head trauma, etc.)

80% of deaths are Nat­ural
10% are Acci­den­tal
5% are Sui­cide
3% are Homi­cide
2% are Undetermined.

Coro­ners will go to the scene where the body is found (Hern­don said she wishes peo­ple didn’t die dur­ing bliz­zards, or that peo­ple wouldn’t wait until 2AM to call in a death) and deter­mine if it’s the pri­mary scene (where the death occurred) or a sec­ondary scene. Was the body moved after death? They’ll try to deter­mine whether the body and the scene say the same thing wit­nesses are reporting.

A cou­ple of other points she made:
Bow­els and blad­ders purge after a nat­ural death, not a vio­lent death.
Car­bon monox­ide and cyanide poi­son­ing turn the body a bright cherry red.

Hern­don said the hard­est part of her job is noti­fy­ing the next of kin. Nor­mally, this is done in per­son, but there’s some­one from Law Enforce­ment with her, along with a victim’s advo­cate and/or a chap­lain. These vis­its are coor­di­nated by the Coroner’s Office.

I hope there’s a tid­bit or two in here some of you might find inter­est­ing, or be able to use in your own writing.

Tomor­row, my guest in the Inter­view Room is Vio­letta Rand

12 thoughts on “Coroners — A Workshop Recap

  1. Inter­est­ing bit about the purg­ing only being after a nat­ural death. I would think a brush with acci­den­tal death or homi­cide would be enough to flush out the sys­tem. Hope I never get to find out.

    • The expla­na­tion was that a vio­lent death hap­pens too fast for those mus­cles to relax. That doesn’t take into account that it might hap­pen more slowly.

  2. Gosh I would hate to have to pro­vide that next of kin noti­fi­ca­tion. But I guess if you do this kind of work, it goes with the territory.

    We have elected Coro­ners here in GA. The guy that’s our coro­ner is also the county build­ing inspec­tor. One stop shop­ping if some­one dies in a new con­struc­tion or unin­hab­it­able place.

    Nice, help­ful post, Terry.

    • I think our last Coro­ner here had no med­ical train­ing, but the cur­rent one has a much “bet­ter” back­ground. Hub­ster even applied for a posi­tion as deputy or assis­tant to the Coro­ner, but there were other appli­cants whose back­grounds included more “human” foren­sics. (Hubster’s a marine mam­mal spe­cial­ist, and the odds that a dead man­a­tee or whale would show up in Teller County are rather slim.)

  3. I love learn­ing this kind of infor­ma­tion! I was sur­prised by the purg­ing, too

  4. This post was so infor­ma­tive. We all learned so much. Thanks for putting it together.

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