The Last Responders
Many of you know or at least heard of a coroner, right? Most everyone has seen a show or heard on the news “the coroner’s report states…,” but how many of you understand what the coroner’s office does for your community? How many of you understand the painstaking hours that are spent investigating the death of your loved ones? Sadly, unless you’ve experienced the unfortunate event of losing a loved one to an unnatural or untimely death you likely do not have an accurate understanding of who we are and what we do. Please allow me to explain.
When someone is found dead, dies unexpectedly or dies at home and is not under a doctors care, 911 is called. Police and fire respond, assess the situation and then they will call on the coroner’s office to respond to the scene. A coroner’s investigator, also known as a deputy coroner or medicolegal death investigator (MDI), will respond and begin their investigation. No, we are not crime scene investigators, but we do work in collaboration with law enforcement on every scene. The coroner’s investigator has jurisdiction over the body, or bodies, of the deceased and the police have jurisdiction over the scene.
To make the explanation a little more simple, let’s say we are at the scene of a suicide by gunshot wound to the head and the decedent’s friend is present on scene. The MDI arrives and meets with the first officer on scene to get briefed. Once the MDI has all the information available from the officer, they are introduced to the friend on scene. At this point the MDI will sit down with the friend and ask a slew of questions that are typically just as uncomfortable for the friend to hear as they are for the MDI to ask. Typically, a victim’s advocate will be there and will ask the MDI to give the friend some space, suggesting that these uncomfortable questions be saved for a later date. Unfortunately, these difficult questions must be asked at the scene because the answers assist investigators with determining the cause and manner of death. Some people will ask, “isn’t the cause and manner pretty clear?” The simple answer is yes, but there are times when homicides are staged to look like suicides, and it is the job of the MDI to make sure that is not the case.
Once the interview is done, the MDI will go to the body and begin the on-scene examination. The body is examined and photographed from head to toe. The on-scene exam is very detailed because it is extremely important that it is done correctly. Rigor mortis, livor mortis and algor mortis, postmortem changes the body experiences, are all checked and confirmed to be consistent with the story that was told to investigators. It is imperative that these factors line up with how the body was found because if they do not, that is a huge red flag! For instance, if the friend says they heard the shot and ran in the room to find the decedent lying on his back, but during the scene exam livor mortis is found to be present on the decedent’s chest and abdomen area, that is an indicator that the body was moved after death. For those who do not know, livor mortis is the settling of blood into the lowest areas of the body. Think gravity. If you die face down your blood will settle to the anterior side or your body; if you die on your back it settles posterior. After the scene and body have been examined and photographed, the body is tagged, placed in a marked body bag and prepared for transport to the morgue for a more thorough exam and autopsy.
Now that the scene and body have been taken care of, it is time for the MDI to contact the family and notify them of the death. This may be the hardest part of the job. When the family is local, and circumstances make it possible, the MDI, an accompanying police officer and a victim’s advocate will go to the family’s home to notify them in person. This needs to be done delicately and the MDI needs to maintain their composure, regardless off the gut-wrenching screams and heartbreaking cries. No two notifications are the same. There is no way to determine how a family will react when they are given, what is likely to be, the worst news of their life. As stated above, the MDI needs to ask questions that may be hard for the family to hear and answer, and the interviews can last anywhere from 30 minutes to over 2 hours, but again, the answers to these questions are imperative to the investigation and to determining the final cause and manner of death.
Once the interviews are complete the MDI will write their investigation report and then consult with their pathologist prior to the autopsy. In some counties the MDI will assist with the autopsy if time permits; in others, they await the preliminary report, which is usually available within a day or so of the autopsy. The preliminary report is typically just a briefing from the pathologist on what the findings were. The final report can take anywhere from 6 to 12 weeks depending on location and workload. During that time, the MDI will usually be contacted by the family several times with various questions and requests for guidance.
Once the final autopsy report is completed, the MDI will contact the family, go over the official findings and answer any questions they may have. At that point, the death certificate is ready to be signed and certified, and the case ready to be closed. I would love to say that once the investigation is closed we no longer think about it, but that is definitely not the case. There are cases that stay with us forever. No matter how tough we act, or how much we say it doesn’t bother us, there are cases that linger.
A lot of people seem fascinated when we tell them what we do, and yes, it is a fascinating job; there is never a dull moment. That said, an MDI’s job is not as glamorous as television makes it seem. There are times where we must investigate bodies that have been decomposing for multiple months and the smell is awful! In these cases the smell gets so embedded into our clothing that we will strip down in the garage of our homes so we don’t bring it inside. In order to remove the smell from our sinuses, we will head straight for the shower where we let water run into our noses and down our throats. There are also times we must investigate the death of a child who was at an age close to that of our own children. In cases like these, it is hard to come home and look at our own children. It hurts in a way you just can’t put into words. The range of emotions we experience is often beyond our own comprehension. But in the same sense, we can see a lot of things that would devastate the average person, and, quite honestly, we don’t think twice about it. Not to be crass, but picking up skull fragments and brain matter from the street is just another day for us.
We see death day in and day out, it’s our world. It’s how we make a living, and for what we see and do, the living we make is barely adequate. However, a lot of us would not change it for the world. Honestly, most of us like the excitement that comes with not knowing what the day will bring and the fact that we get to be part of some fascinating investigations. The truth is, most of the coroner’s investigators out there have a master’s degree that could be used to earn them more money in a profession that doesn’t involve daily tragedy. Ultimately, we do not. Why? Because we love the job. We love being there for you and helping you get through the hardest time of your life. Yes, our job is about the dead and speaking for them because they can no longer speak for themselves, but it is just as much about the living. It is about caring for you in your time of need. Often times we are a shoulder to cry on, a hand to hold or a soothing voice at 3AM when you can’t sleep because you have questions about your loved one’s death.
We work 24/7/365. Death doesn't take time off; in fact it often comes when we are sitting down to eat dinner or finally closing our eyes after working 36 hours straight. Nonetheless, we, like first responders, don’t do it for the thanks. We do it because we care about our community. We care about the decedent’s and we care about you. We are the last responders. We are the ones writing the final chapter in your loved one’s book. It is a role we do not take lightly. We consider it an honor; it is our duty to make sure that chapter is filled with dignity, respect and love.