Coroners and Medical Examiners

After the body of Vincent Viafore was recovered from the Hudson River last May, the Orange County medical examiner (as told by Forensic News, among many others) reported that his death was a homicide caused by a “kayak drain plug intentionally removed by other.” The attorney for a suspect in his death claimed that the medical examiner’s office had overstepped its bounds with that determination, saying it was based on police speculation, not an examination of Mr. Viafore’s body.

Some legal experts agreed that the medical examiner went too far. The Orange County executive office, on the other hand, replied that “If medical examiners were limited to basing their conclusions solely on a physical examination of the body there would be no coroner inquests. The coroners and medical examiners have been doing this for over 100 years.”

I wish lawyers would look in a dictionary before making foolish statements. I might even wish that lawyers fulminating about the duties of medical examiners would look in a Medical Examiners’ and Coroners’ Handbook before making foolish statements, but that would be asking too much.

If you go by their obvious original meanings, a “coroner” is an officer of the Crown (as in “coronation”), and a “medical examiner” is somebody who does medical examinations. If you believe that, a medical examiner could only examine the victim’s body, and a coroner (in the U.S.) would have no duties at all because there is no Crown.

But language changes. In current dictionaries, a coroner is an officer charged with determining the cause of death when the cause might not be natural. A medical examiner is a physician charged with the same duty. Roughly speaking, a medical examiner is a coroner with a medical degree. Nothing in these definitions limits a coroner or a medical examiner to examining the body.

The handbook I mentioned above is specific:

When the death was the result of an external cause, the medical examiner or coroner should specify whether it was an accident, suicide, or homicide and describe the circumstances in items 38–44. In item 43 a clear, brief statement as to how the injury occurred should be made, indicating the circumstances or cause, such as Burned using gasoline to light stove,” Slipped and fell while shoveling snow,” Self-inflicted handgun wound,” or Stabbed by sharp instrument.”

It’s pretty obvious that a medical examiner has to do more than just a medical examination to make this kind of determination, and that’s exactly what the Orange County medical examiner did in the case of Vincent Viafore. Any fool can see that. But not a lawyer.

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