Death investigations are conducted by both police investigators and medical examiners or coroners. Each city, county, and/or state determines whether or not to utilize a coroner or medical examiner system.
A coroner is an elected official and may or may not be a medical doctor. In fact, even the ticket-taker at the local Bijou Theater could be elected as coroner in some places, as long as he/she meets the local requirements. In some locations the requirements are minimal, such as being a citizen of the area for a year, and being of legal voting age with a non-violent criminal history.
In some counties, in California for example, the county sheriff also serves as coroner. Elected corners with no medical background employ pathologists to conduct autopsies.
A medical examiner is a medical doctor that has been hired by a city or county to conduct autopsies and investigate the cause(s) of suspicious deaths.
The police are in charge of all murder scenes, but medical examiners and coroners are in charge of the body. Medical examiners and coroners do not interrogate suspects and detectives do not examine bodies.
Bodies are placed in sealed body bags and delivered to the morgue in specially equipped vehicles.
Upon arrival at the morgue, bodies are placed on gurneys and rolled onto scales where they’re weighed.
After weighing, the body is placed inside a cold room until autopsy. Black or dark gray, leak-resistant body bags are used pre-autopsy. The paper bag resting on the body of the murder victim at the top of the photo contains the victim’s personal belongings.
Former Butler County, Ohio coroner, Dr. Richard Burkhardt, M.D., at autopsy station.
Carts containing the necessary tools of the trade are wheeled next to the autopsy station within easy reach for the pathologists.
Bone saw for removing the top of the skull, and sometimes to make the rib cuts for access to internal organs.
As organs are removed they’re placed on hanging scales for weighing.
“If a medical examiner were allowed to do only one thing during an autopsy, that one thing should be to weigh the heart of the victim. The weight of a heart is key to most of death’s mysteries.” Dr. Richard Burkhardt, Butler County Ohio Corner. (Excerpt from Police Procedure and Investigation by Lee Lofland)
Once the autopsy is complete, an assistant begins the process of closing. Pictured above, an attendant replaces the top of the skull and then stitches the scalp back in place.
Pathologists make a “Y” incision, starting at each shoulder, meeting at the bottom of the sternum (the xiphoid process is the cartilaginous/bony tip at the base of the sternum), continuing to the pubic bone, typically bypassing the navel.
Body – post autopsy.
Samples of organs are often kept for future examination, and/or DNA testing.
Cold rooms also store amputated body parts. The gray trays on the right contain severed limbs. White, paper-like body bags, like the one lying on the gurney in the rear of the cold room above, are used post-autopsy for bodies waiting to be transported to funeral homes.
*Attendees of the first Writers’ Police Academy were treated to a behind the scenes tour of the morgue featured above. Hmm…only writers would consider a trip to the morgue as a treat.