interpret radiographs, prepare records, maintain databases, and provide competent and credible testimony in courts. Staff requires training and expensive equipment to utilize and integrate new technologies. Efforts are restricted by budgets, and budgets vary widely, ranging from $18,000 to $2.5 million annually for county systems, depending on the size of the population. A 2007 survey conducted for the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME) by Hanzlick revealed that county systems’ per capita cost ranged from $1.31 to $9.19, with a mean of $2.89. State systems benefit from economies of scale and function more economically at $.64 to $2.81, with a mean of $1.76.35 The large variation in qualifications, staffing, budgets, and the multiple skills required for competent death investigations, especially in small jurisdictions, has resulted in marked variation in the quantity and quality of death investigations in the United States.

Physical facilities also vary in adequacy. Only one-third of offices have in-house facilities to perform the histology needed to make microscopic diagnoses on tissues sampled at autopsy. Only one-third have in-house toxicology capabilities to identify drugs present in the deceased that either contributed to or were the primary cause of death. One-third do not have radiology services in-house that would allow the identification of missiles, disease, bony injury or identification features in decedents.36 Some coroner systems do not have any physical facility at all.

It is clear that death investigations in the United States rely on a patchwork of coroners and medical examiners and that these vary greatly in the budgets, staff, equipment, and training available to them, and in the quality of services they provide. No matter what the level of quality of other forensic science disciplines that are supported by a particular jurisdiction may be, if the death investigation does not include competent death investigation and forensic pathology services, both civil and criminal cases may be compromised.

All ME/Cs share the following deficiencies to some degree:

  • imperfect legal structure/code controlling death investigations;

  • inadequate expertise to investigate and medically assess decedents;

  • inadequate resources to perform competent death investigations;

  • inadequate facilities and equipment for carrying out body views and conducting autopsies;

  • inadequate technical infrastructure (laboratory support);

  • inadequate training of personnel in the forensic science disciplines;


R. Hanzlick. “An Overview of Medical Examiner/Coroner Systems in the United States—Development, Current Status, Issues, and Needs.” Presentation to the committee. June 5, 2007.


Murphy, op. cit.

The National Academies | 500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001
Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement