Forensic Death Investigation Symposium: A Systematic Approach for Enhancing Policy and Practice

Barbara Butcher, chief of staff and director of the Forensic Science Training Program in New York City's Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, began by identifying what she sees as the central problem: the lack of a common name for death investigators. We are called coroners, medical examiners and investigators, she said. Some have training and credentials, and others do not; some have medical training but no investigative training, and vice versa.

Butcher asked, How can this be considered a profession? This is one of the most noble and caring professions in the world, she said. We are the last voice of someone who is gone. We need to establish death investigation as a profession, Butcher urged. She presented three solutions: (1) chose a name and agree on it, (2) establish standards of practice, and (3) find a governing body.

James Downs, coastal regional medical examiner for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, said that the National Academy of Sciences report highlights concerns about quality, independence and professionalism in medicolegal death investigation. Currently, there is a disjointed patchwork of medical examiners, coroners/justices of the peace and mixed offices, Downs said. We must come together to have a clear, unified message.

Downs said that the field needs funding, resources, administration, better training and education, and professionalism. The field must maximize technology and establish standards and mandatory quality systems, he said.

This is a local issue, Downs added. What works for one community will not necessarily work for another. The people need to decide, he said.

P. Michael Murphy, coroner for the Clark County (Nevada) Office of the Coroner/Medical Examiner, explained that his office has five forensic pathologists. According to Murphy, they run the ship and are the captains when it comes to autopsies; he is the hospital administrator.

All of us have different ideas about what the solution is, Murphy added. We have an opportunity to air our differences, identify challenges and provide possible solutions, he said. He urged participants not to argue about whether a medical examiner or coroner system is better; instead, he asked participants to address quality and discuss what constitutes a competent medicolegal death investigation. We need more training and a better-coordinated effort, Murphy said. This is our opportunity to make a difference, he noted.

Chris Taylor, a supervisory chemist at the U.S. Army Investigation Laboratory and co-chair of the Certification, Accreditation and Licensing Interagency Working Group of the National Science Technology Council, Committee on Science, Subcommittee on Forensic science, reiterated the need for certification and accreditation. According to Taylor, the working group is examining what constitutes a good accreditation program. The group is also looking at cost analysis (determining the economic impacts, such as time, materials and expenditures that occur and recur with certification, accreditation and proficiency testing) and exploring whether accreditation should be linked to funding. He said that in order to make accreditation a reality, the federal government must support state and local agencies.

Date Created: June 15, 2011