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Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward
QUALIFICATIONS OF CORONERS AND MEDICAL EXAMINERS
Jurisdictions vary in terms of the required qualifications, skills, and activities for death investigators. Coroners are constitutional officers, with 82 percent being elected and 18 percent appointed.27 Coroners as elected officials fulfill requirements for residency, minimum age, and any other qualifications required by statute. They may or may not be physicians, may or may not have medical training, and may or may not perform autopsies (see Box 9-1). Some serve as administrators of death investigation systems, while others are responsible solely for decisions regarding the cause and manner of death. Typical qualifications for election as a coroner include being a registered voter, attaining a minimum age requirement ranging from 18 to 25 years, being free of felony convictions, and completing a training program, which can be of varying length. The selection pool is local and small (because work is inconvenient and pay is relatively low), and medical training is not always a requirement. Coroners are independent of law enforcement and other agencies, but as elected officials they must be responsive to the public, and this may lead to difficulty in making unpopular determinations of the cause and manner of death.
Recently a 17-year-old high school senior successfully completed the coroner’s examination and was appointed a deputy coroner in an Indiana jurisdiction.28 In one state, justices of the peace are charged with determining cause and manner of death, but they are not medical death investigators. Whether coroners refer cases to pathologists for autopsy is largely budget driven (an autopsy costs about $2,000), although access to pathologists may be an issue if regional interjurisdictional arrangements do not exist. Even so, 84 percent of coroner offices see a need for professional standards,29 and they identify resources for infrastructure, staff, and training as continuing needs.
Options for improving death investigation by coroners include (1) replacing coroner systems with medical examiner systems; (2) increasing the statutory requirements for performance of coroners; or (3) infusing funding to improve the capabilities of coroners.30
Some coroners have suggested establishing a “Coroner College.”31 Coroners want grants for equipment, accreditation incentives, and access to forensic laboratories, NCIC, and automated fingerprint identification
P.M. Murphy, Coroner, Clark County Coroner’s Office, Las Vegas, Nevada. “The Coroner System.” Presentation to the committee. June 5, 2007.