the body of knowledge of medicine to bear when assessing the history and physical findings and when deciding on the appropriate laboratory studies needed to determine the cause and manner of death. In statewide systems, cities and counties have local medical examiners that are physicians trained to receive the reports of death, decide jurisdiction, examine the body, and make a determination of the cause and manner of death. They certify locally many obvious natural and accidental deaths. In statewide and regionalized statewide systems, local medical examiners do not need to be forensic pathologists and do not perform autopsies, but they do refer, according to protocols, deaths from violence—particularly suicides, homicides, and deaths occurring under suspicious circumstances—to a central or regional autopsy facility for autopsy and further follow-up by a forensic pathologist. In hybrid or mixed state systems, coroners may refer cases for autopsy to forensic pathologists, but there is no supervision or quality assurance to ensure that the coroner’s certification of the cause of death and manner of death is concordant with the pathologist’s conclusions.


ME/Cs have varying forms of organizational oversight. Forty-three percent of the U.S. population is served by systems that are independent, 33 percent by offices residing administratively in public safety or law enforcement organizations, 14 percent by offices in health departments, and 10 percent by offices within a forensic laboratory. Government reports over the years have recommended that a medical examiner system should be an independent agency or should report to a commission so that it avoids any conflicts of interest and so that it reports directly to the jurisdictional governing body. When this is not possible, incorporation into a health department, instead of into law enforcement agencies, seems to provide the next most compatible location.33


ME/C offices serving populations of less than 25,000 people employ 1 to 2 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff members, while offices serving populations of 1 million or more employ an average of 50 FTEs.34 Competent death investigations require that trained medical death investigators attend scenes; medically credentialed persons perform external physical examinations; and forensic pathologists perform medicolegal autopsies, employ and


V. Weedn. “Legal Impediment to Adequate Medicolegal Death Investigation.” Presentation to the committee. June 5, 2007.


Downs, op. cit.

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