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Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward
ME/C jurisdiction is determined by each state code and generally extends to deaths that are sudden and unexpected, deaths that have no attending physician, and all suspicious and violent deaths. The actual classes of death over which the ME/C assumes jurisdiction vary from state to state. Classes may include deaths resulting from injury, such as by violence or poisoning; by circumstance, such as related to fire or under anesthesia; by decedent status, such as prisoners or mental health patients; or by timeframe, such as deaths that occur within 24 hours of admission to a hospital. About 1 percent of the U.S. population (about 2.6 million people) dies each year. In 2004, ME/C offices received nearly 1 million reports of deaths, constituting between 30 to 40 percent of all U.S. deaths, and accepted about one half of those (500,000, or 1 in 6 deaths) for further investigation and certification.19 Depending on the jurisdiction, about 40 to 50 percent of deaths referred to the ME/C will, after investigation and examination, be attributed to natural causes, 27 to 40 percent to accident, 12 to 15 percent to suicide, 7 to 10 percent to homicide, and 1 percent as undetermined.20
ME/Cs serve dual purposes. First, they serve the criminal justice system as medical detectives by identifying and documenting pathologic findings in suspicious or violent deaths and testifying in courts as expert medical witnesses. Second, as public health officers, they surveil for index cases of infection or toxicity that may herald biological or chemical terrorism, identify diseases with epidemic potential, and document injury trends.
Additional ME/C responsibilities include the response to and investigation of all deaths resulting from all hazards, including terrorism and mass fatality events, and the identification of the unidentified dead. In addition, some 13,000 unidentified individuals are currently entered into databases for the unidentified dead, and many thousands more are entered as missing persons, as thousands of families search for them. Accessing these databases and matching them to the many thousands of individuals entered as missing persons is a major challenge for all organizations. Eighty percent of surveyed ME/C systems “rarely or never” utilize the National Crime Information Center Unidentified and Missing Persons (NCIC UP/MP) files to match their dead bodies to those reported as missing by law enforcement
J.M. Hickman, K.A. Hughes, K.J. Strom, and J.D. Ropero-Miller. 2004. Medical Examiners and Coroners’ Offices, 2004. U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics Special Report NCJ216756.