If you have not yet listened to the podcast 99% Invisible by Roman Mars, you absolutely should. It is excellent. Today I stumbled upon a May 19th, 2015 episode, “The Nutshell Studies,” in which Katie Mingle and Roman Mars focus on Frances Glessner Lee, who famously created replicas of death scenes in the form of tiny, intricately accurate scale dioramas that were used to train police officers and homicide investigators. The episode also highlighted some of the differences between the medical examiner system(s) and the coroner system(s) in the US, as well as some of the myriad problems with the coroner systems. I posted the following comment on below the episode on the 99% Invisible website. Now, if you haven’t listened to the episode, I would suggest you listen to it here before continuing:
Thank you for focusing on death investigation and the coroner/medical examiner system, and for highlighting some of the problems in the underfunded patchwork of a coroner system. I am deeply familiar with this system, because I was a deputy coroner and then county coroner in my county. I am not a doctor; by background is in anthropology with a focus in forensic anthropology and pre-medicine. However, I really doubt one could get a doctor to work for the wage of the coroner in my county. In fact, for about the last 40 years, the coroners here have either been anthropologists or funeral home directors (another potential conflict of interest that occurs frequently in smaller counties).
Do bear in mind that most coroners are required to be trained and undergo continuing education in medicolegal death investigation. Many offices are working on accreditation through the IAC&ME, the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners. Many investigators are certified through the ABMDI, the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators. I am a member of and certified through both [correction, respectively], as well as through my state’s Peace Officer Standards Training Board of Coroners.
However, the problem is the patchwork nature of the coroner system, and that not all investigators or county coroner officials are uniformly certified. Each county has to make their own protocols on when to perform an autopsy and when not to. Many counties have to travel to perform autopsies with contract forensic pathologists. At least one entire state, Wyoming, is entirely devoid of forensic pathologists, so each county must contract and travel out of state for every single autopsy. Many offices have to struggle with county commissioners to explain the value of maintaining an autopsy budget and for paying their employees a living wage.
Thank you for highlighting some of the problems with the election of a county coroner, in which coroners candidates are forced to choose a party, then court votes and endorsements from police, funeral homes, sheriff’s departments, former professors, former county coroners, and other prominent members in their communities. To make matters even harder, how does a coroner candidate court regular, non-law enforcement voters when most voters are not even aware of what the coroner does?