Whenever a crime scene involves the death of a person, a coroner or medical examiner is called out to investigate. In some jurisdictions, a coroner and medical examiner are one in the same. However, there ARE differences between the two.
In this article, I will attempt to explain the differences between a medical examiner and a coroner. I will also discuss what each of their job duties entails.
Across the nation, there are two kinds of forensic investigative systems: the coroner system and the more modern medical examiner system. Most jurisdictions are pushing for the medical examiner system.
What is a coroner?
A coroner is an elected or appointed official who has no background in medical or forensic science. A coroner is a politician who wins enough votes to become the incumbent. He can be a sheriff, a dentist, a baker, or local pizza shop owner. He will have little or no knowledge of forensic investigation.
During the past quarter century, the rules of the office of the coroner have evolved such that many jurisdictions today require the coroner to be a licensed medical doctor. He may be an internist, a gynecologist, or dermatologist but does not necessarily have to be a pathologist or a forensic pathologist. He may not have the qualifications to perform the duties of a coroner. For this reason, the medical examiner system has evolved.
What is a medical examiner?
A medical examiner (ME) is a doctor of medicine who is licensed to practice medicine. Most ME’s are trained in pathology, particularly forensic pathology. This means they have specialized training in pathology and training and experience in forensics. A forensic pathologist is a clinical pathologist who has special training in the field of forensics. He is usually the person in charge of a crime lab. He is an overseer of all aspects of death and criminal injury. The primary duty of the forensic pathologist is to perform forensic autopsies, which are needed to determine the cause and manner of death.
Many rural areas, where county, state, or federal funding is minimal, still have the coroner system today. The coroner in these jurisdictions are elected public servants in charge of investigating a death. The reason for this trend is that these developing areas just do not have a big enough population to justify the presence of a highly trained forensic pathologist as a medical examiner. Under these circumstances, a coroner must outsource a forensic autopsy when needed.
With advancing technology, the coroner system will eventually be obsolete leaving the medical examiner system all by itself. Highly educated individuals with special knowledge of laboratory testing and forensic autopsies will be required to fill the position of the office of the medical examiner.