Last 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