Coroners in the US

I like watching British police procedurals and a key person in those stories is the forensic pathologist who determines the cause of death and other particulars that help the investigators solve the crimes. These people are portrayed as highly trained, highly skilled medical professionals. I had assumed that in the US, the people who did similar work were similarly trained. Silly me. You would think that by now I would know better.

In this shocking investigation by John Oliver, I learned that in the US, there are two categories of people entrusted with this important task. One set are called medical examiners and that requires the person to have at least a medical degree. The other category are called coroners and many of these coroners are actually elected, and in some states coroners who perform autopsies to determine the cause of death need have no medical training at all. In Arkansas for example, the only qualification to be elected as a coroner is that one must be 18 years or older and not a felon. That’s it. Apart from the fact that people with no training whatsoever can become coroners, this leads to all manner of abuse as Oliver shows.

What this position needs are forensic pathologists, people with specific training in this work. But in many parts of the US, we have the election of people who may lack any of the skills required to satisfactorily carry out the duties of the office. It really has got out of hand.


  1. Jazzlet says

    Whereas the coroner in the UK is the person who holds the court enquiry into a suspicious or unexplained death and would be reported to by the pathologist, police etc. It’s rather odd anywhere in the USA calling them coroners as the word originally meant the ‘Crown’s man’.

  2. anat says

    And the more rural counties have neither. Just checked the situation in Washington state: Of 39 counties, the 15 with population under 40,000 have neither coroner nor medical examiner, and these duties fall to the county’s prosecuting attorney. 18 counties (with population between 40,000 and 250,000) have coroners while the 5 most populous counties plus Whatcom county (population around 200,000) have medical examiners. About 60% of the state’s population reside in the latter counties.

    Hmm, coroners also perform the duty of the sheriff where the sheriff has a conflict of interest.

  3. flex says

    I can’t say anything about current conditions, but the British mystery writers from the early 20th Century generally portray the coroners in Great Britain as dullards who invariably arrive at the inquest with a preconceived notion of what happened and proceeds to lead the jury into their own interpretation of the evidence.

    Of course, in detective fiction, part of the story is to show how brilliant the author’s detective is, so an incompetent coroner is a very convenient contrast to demonstrate the detective’s superior analytical prowess.

  4. says

    Then there was The Strange Case Of The End Of Civilization As We Know It. With John Cleese.
    Where Watson puts the knife back into the victim.

  5. ionopachys says

    M.E.’s are important in American shows like Law & Order too. And thinking about T.V. shows, Quincy was a medical examiner working under a coroner. I can’t remember if the coroner on that show was elected (all I can remember is that he had an ugly mustache). It does make me wonder how many municipalities have civil coroners at the head of a department that employs professional medical examiners.

  6. TGAP Dad says

    The most comprehensive coverage I’ve ever encountered of this topic was Radley Balko’s book The Cadaver King and the Country Dentist. In addition to the history of the county coroner (originally an officer of the crown, hence the name, who tallied crops, livestock herds and deaths, all for taxation), he dives deeply into the junk science of “bite mark analysis” popularized by dentist Michael West. If Oliver’s segment left you wanting more, go check out the book from your local library.

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