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Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward
presented on television results in jurors giving more or less credence to the forensic experts and their testimony than they should, raising expectations, and possibly resulting in a miscarriage of justice.40 The true effects of the popularization of forensic science disciplines will not be fully understood for some time, but it is apparent that it has increased pressure and attention on the forensic science community in the use and interpretation of evidence in the courtroom.
Fragmented and Inconsistent Medicolegal Death Investigation
The medicolegal death investigation system is a fragmented organization of state and local entities called upon to investigate deaths and to certify the cause and manner of unnatural and unexplained deaths. About 1 percent of the U.S. population (about 2.6 million people) dies each year. Medical examiner and coroner offices receive nearly 1 million reports of deaths, constituting between 30 to 40 percent of all U.S. deaths in 2004, and accept about one half of those (500,000, or 1 in 5 deaths) for further investigation and certification.41 In carrying out this role, medical examiners and coroners are required to decide the scope and course of a death investigation, which may include assessing the scene of death, examining the body, determining whether to perform an autopsy, and ordering other medical tests, forensic analyses, and procedures as needed. Yet the training and skill of medical examiners and coroners and the systems that support them vary greatly. Medical examiners may be physicians, pathologists, or forensic pathologists with jurisdiction within a county, district, or state. A coroner is an elected or appointed official who might not be a physician or have had any medical training. Coroners typically serve a single county.
Since 1877, in the United States, there have been efforts to replace the coroner system with a medical examiner system.42 In fact, more than 80 years ago, the National Academy of Sciences identified concerns regarding the lack of standardization in death investigations and called for the abolishment of the coroner’s office, noting that the office “has conclusively demonstrated its incapacity to perform the functions customarily required of it.”43 In its place, the report called for well-staffed offices of a medical
Schweitzer and Saks, op. cit.; S.A. Cole and R. Dioso-Villa. 2007. CSI and its effects: Media, juries, and the burden of proof. New England Law Review 41(3):435.
M.J. Hickman, K.A. Hughes, K.J. Strom, and J.D. Ropero-Miller. 2007. Medical Examiner and Coroners’ Offices, 2004. U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, Bureau of Justice Statistics. Available at www.ojp.usdoj.gov/bjs/pub/pdf/meco04.pdf.
W.U. Spitz and R.S. Fisher. 1982. Medicolegal Investigation of Death, 2nd ed. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas.
National Research Council. 1928. The Coroner and the Medical Examiner. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.