Medicolegal Death

My wife and I went to see a medicolegal death investigator from the Douglas County Coroner’s Office discuss her profession—a presentation that was surprisingly lively. I thought I’d share a few interesting bits from the morbid monologue.

Naturally, the coroner was late a few minutes. Her Excuse? “Sorry, everyone, somebody died. No, really.”

According to her, a physician determines cause of death. But her job is to determine the manner of death. Both examine the body, but she also goes through the corpse’s effects, to the scene, to their homes and work places. Unlike the police, she doesn’t need a warrant.

The cause of death is something like this: stab wound to the heart. the initiation of the chain. The mechanism is what actually does the killing. So, stab wound? Mechanism: Exsanguination, i.e. blood-loss.

Cause: Pneumonia. Mechanism: Hypoxia, or lack of air, leading to organ failure.

As for manner? That’s the context of the killing.

She gave us the list of manners: homicide, suicide, natural, accident, undetermined. While the examiners will provide comprehensive data about the death, the manner ends up fitting into one of these five simple categories.

One of the coroner’s examples was an x-ray of a man with a nail in his skull. The point was near his ear, the dull hammerable bit in the center of his brain. Cause of death? A nail through the brain. But what was the manner?

After examining the wound, it’s entry, the equipment nearby, we determined the manner involved a nail gun. Judging by the angle, it was likely a suicide. He took a nail gun to his temple and blasted away.

We took cases (from out-of-state and with names removed) and had to determine manners of deaths. Mine was a guy who tried to prove a gun wasn’t loaded by putting it to his forehead and pulling the trigger. She called it a stupidicide but it was officially an accident.

We also looked at photos of grisly ends and did the same. There was a man who was struck by deer antlers. You could tell from the prong-pattern across his chest, the lacerations on his sides. There was someone who fell from a chair while fixing a lightbulb. Well, there was the chair, there was the lightbulb. We also looked at scenes without bodies and determined the cause of death. An alcoholic’s bed (the bottles, the trash basket, the sheets). A suicide by driving into a near-stationary bus (no skid marks).

One of my favorite anecdotes was about a skull she found. The examiner being a generalist, she passed on the item to an anthropologist, who determined the age and time period of the skull. She sent isotopes (water) to a lab and DNA to another lab. A femur was discovered with bite marks; this led her to find bone fragments in old bear scat. Within two weeks, they knew everything about this teenage girl, including how she was murdered.

The entire presentation was highly disturbing. I was appalled. My wife was enthralled. I hope she doesn’t get any ideas.