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Strengthening Forensic Science in the United States: A Path Forward
examiner, led by a pathologist. In strong terms, the 1928 committee called for the professionalization of death investigation, with medical science at its center.
Despite these calls, efforts to move away from a coroner system in the United States have stalled. Currently, 11 states have coroner-only systems, 22 states have medical examiner systems, and 18 states have mixed systems—in which some counties have coroners and others have medical examiners. Some of these states have a referral system, in which the coroner refers cases to medical examiners for autopsy.44 According to a 2003 Institute of Medicine report, in addition to the variety of systems in the United States, the location and authority of the medical examiner or coroner office also varies, with 43 percent of the U.S. population served by a medical examiner or coroner housed in a separate city, county, or state government office. Other arrangements involve an office under public safety or law enforcement. The least common placement is under a forensic laboratory or health department.45
Variability also is evident in terms of accreditation of death investigation systems. As of August 2008, 54 of the medical examiner offices in the United States (serving 23 percent of the population) have been accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners, the professional organization of physician medical examiners. Most of the country is served by offices lacking accreditation.46 Similarly, requirements for training are not mandatory. About 36 percent of the population lives where minimal or no special training is required to conduct death investigations.47 Recently, an 18-year-old high school student was elected a deputy coroner in Indiana after completing a short training course.48
Additionally, funding for programs supporting death investigations vary across the country, with the cost of county systems ranging from $0.62 to $5.54 per capita, and statewide systems from $0.32 to $3.20.49 Most funding comes from tax revenues, and with such limited funds available, the salaries of medical examiners and skilled personnel are much lower than those of other physicians and medical personnel. Consequently, recruiting and retaining skilled personnel is a constant struggle.
At a time when natural disasters or man-made disasters could create
R. Hanzlick and D. Combs. 1998. Medical examiner and coroner systems: History and trends. Journal of the American Medical Association 279(11):870-874.
Institute of Medicine. 2003. Medicolegal Death Investigation System: Workshop Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
R. Hanzlick. 1996. Coroner training needs. A numeric and geographic analysis. Journalof the American Medical Association 276(21):1775-1778.