Do Do I Need a Coroner, Medical Examiner or Pathologist?


I’m so excited to have Garry Rodgers join my honored team of medical experts. To be honest, I’ve been looking for someone on the “other side of life” to offer their insights because I do see a fair number of forensic questions and this is not my area of expertise. I try to keep the living from crossing over.

Garry will be here on a regular basis doing Forensic Fridays and I’m so glad to have him. I hope you’ll check out his novel, No Witnesses to Nothing.

Welcome, Garry!

Hi. I’m Garry Rodgers and I’m delighted to be a guest on Redwood’s Medical Edge.

For over three decades I’ve been involved in the death business. I’ve been a Royal Canadian Mounted Police homicide detective, served as a sniper on Emergency Response Teams, and finished up my forensic career as a Coroner. So I’ve seen my fair share of bodies.

Everyone knows what a homicide cop does, and most would rather not be in the sights of a sniper, but there’s a lot of misunderstanding about the role of a Coroner as opposed to a Medical Examiner (ME) and to a pathologist. A bit of a history here.

All civilized jurisdictions have a judge of the dead whose duty is to find fact. Not fault. The facts to be determined are the Who, When, Where, How, and By What Means that the deceased expired. Once these facts are determined, the death must be classified into one of five categories; Natural, Accidental, Suicide, Homicide, or Undetermined. This method of fact-finding and classification is universal, whereas the structure of appointing the judge is not.

The office of the coroner dates back to 10th century England when the Crowner of the King (hence the word coroner) investigated any number of matters, including sudden and unexplained human deaths. This evolved into an inquisitional role where the coroner would conduct simple inquiries, or in cases of public interest, would hold inquests and compel witnesses to testify. Coroner appointments generally went to upstanding citizens of the community, not necessarily to those of a medical, legal, or investigative background.

As science progressed, it became prudent to retain the expertise of medical professionals, particularly in the clinical areas of autopsy and toxicology. This coincided with the massing of population in urban areas. Out of practicality and economics, the cities would employ full time medical doctors as examiners who’d delegate field investigations to lesser qualified persons. The rural areas, having a lower caseload, adopted the reverse where they’d contract out the specialties.

A pathologist, on the other hand, is a medical examiner who’s been specifically trained in the study of death and disease. The term pathologist dates back to ancient Greece; pathos meaning suffering, and logos meaning writing. Taking it a step further, a forensic pathologist signifies a specially-trained medical doctor who’s qualified to testify in court.

I can’t say the Coroner system is any better or worse than the Medical Examiner system. The professionals may have inverse roles, but all are exceptionally well trained. Both speak to the deceased’s interests and that’s what’s important. Death investigations have become more complex as science advances and, regardless of the administrative issues, having the right people doing the right jobs is key to determining the proper cause and classification of death.

Just a note on the personal qualities required to investigate deaths. First you need an inquisitive mind. Often things aren’t what they seem on the surface, and it’s through attention to detail that the facts rise. Second – empathy. You deal with those in the world which the deceased suddenly left; families, friends, co-workers, and to them it’s not just another case. Last, you need a strong constitution. Some of the death scenes can be exceptionally unpleasant.

In an upcoming sequence of posts, I’ll take you deeper into the world of a coroner. We’ll follow a true case which I investigated that employed the spectrum of forensic techniques. I was able to correctly classify the death, but I’ll assure you… it wasn’t what it seemed on the surface.
So stick around. I promise to be interesting!

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Garry Rodgers has lived the life that he writes about. Now retired as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police homicide detective and forensic coroner, Garry also served as a sniper with British SAS–trained Emergency Response Teams and is a recognized expert-witness in firearms. A believer in ‘What Goes Around, Comes Around’ Garry provides free services in helping writers throughhis crime and forensic expertise. Garry’s new supernatural thriller No Witnesses To Nothing is based on a true crime story where many believe that paranormal intervention occurred. An Amazon Top 10 Bestseller, it’s available on Kindle and print on demand. You can connect with Garry via his Website: www.dyingwords.net

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