Forensic Experts and the Law

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What are the legal obligations of medical examiners and coroners?  It is useful to know the standards, so we can see how the medical examiners who performed the autopsies on the Branch Davidians measured up.

Black's Law Dictionary defines a coroner as follows:

"Public official, of English origin, charged with duty to make inquiry into the causes and circumstances of any death which occurs through violence or suddenly and with marks of suspicion; i.e., unnatural death.  The functions and duties of coroners have been diminished having being replaced by medical examiners."

Black's Law Dictionary defines a medical examiner as follows:

"Public officer charged with responsibility of investigating all sudden, unexplained, unnatural or suspicious deaths reported to him, including the performance of autopsies and assisting the state in criminal homicide cases."

Determination of Cause and Manner of Death

Coroners and medical examiners attempt to determine the cause and manner of death: "The distinction between the two terms "cause of death and manner of death" is important.  An autopsy may reveal that the cause of death of a man fished from a river is asphyxiation due to his lungs' filling with enough water to halt breathing.  If, however, the cause also is found to have involved an obvious blow to the head with a crowbar, after which the unconscious victim was fitted with concrete shoes and stuffed into a burlap bag, the investigation takes on an added air of urgency.  It also helps investigators determine the manner of death."  —Joyce & Stover, pg. 44.

Thus, medical examiners and forensic experts have a two-fold task: to investigate the cause of death and to investigate the manner of death.

Coroners and Medical Examiners May Not Withhold Evidence

Coroners and medical examiners have an affirmative responsibility to come forward with all relevant evidence in a disinterested manner, and not become players in the adversarial process of criminal justice.  They may not withhold evidence of criminal activity by any person, even a public employee.  To do such would leave them open to the charge of misprision of felony, which Black's Law Dictionary defines as the following:

"The offense of concealing a felony committed by another, but without such previous concert with or subsequent assistance to the felon as would make the party concealing an accessory before or after the fact."


"Whoever, having knowledge of the actual commission of a felony cognizable by a court of the United States, conceals and does not as soon as possible make known the same to some judge or other person in civil or military authority under the United States, is guilty of the federal crime of misprision of felony.  18 U.S.C.A. Section 4."

Thus, for a medical examiner or coroner, the requirement for impartial, scientific evaluation of the evidence is not only a professional responsibility, it is a matter of law, enforceable with criminal penalties.

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