Death is a sensitive topic for the living, and the need to determine how the dead departed is often an inverted case. The living takes it upon themselves to determine how their loved one died using all the resources both public and private to do so. Despite the efforts, an investigative report published by Frontline on death investigation, report on the indifference in the quest for answers by families (Hanzlick, 2016). The death investigation is whereby a coroner or a forensic pathologist seeks to understand how and why a person died. The investigation report indicates that there is no serious attention given to the public office or the profession to ensure that a death investigation is giving its due diligence. As a result, numerous deaths, including murders and homicides go un-investigated, and families end up burying their loved ones without the right answers. The phenomenon is alarming, and at the rate at which deaths in America occurs, there is a need to place stern devotion to this issue. The following paper aims to present an analytical view on death investigation in the United States of America.
Death Investigation: Federal and State Laws
As stated earlier, a coroner or a forensic pathologist is authorized to conduct post-mortem or autopsies on dead bodies. A pathologist is an individual who studies the cytological and tissues of a deceased individual to determine the cause of death. The qualifications indicate that the person should at least have the professional jurisprudence to conduct such investigations. According to the investigative report by Frontline, a certified professional forensic pathologist stated that it takes more than two years to gain the platform for general training in forensic pathology.
Consequently, a scientific professional in the line can pursue specified training of up to five to six years of practice. Dr. Marcella Fierro (Frontline 2018) indicates that a forensic pathologist is not just a doctor; he or she is the gateway between the living and the dead (Frontline, 2018). The professional should be competent enough to ensure that the dead are given their last rights of respect professionally.
Regarding professionalism, the coroner’s office from a national perspective is not entirely recognized under Federal law. The reason is that there are limited capital incentives provided for the professional offices across the country. As a result, most of the offices from a State level, are not budgeted in yearly budgets. In California State, for instance, receives more dead bodies more than the office can handle. As a result, they have to hire storage for more cooling facilities to care for the dead bodies (Frontline, 2018). According to the interview by Frontline (2018), the head coroner of the office in California indicates that due to the limitation in resources and personnel, he is only able to investigate close to three or four bodies per year! This creates a sense of panic when it comes to living. The investigator in the Frontline report (2018) indicates that there is a myriad of issues that surround the competence in coroner’s offices in America.
Primarily, the law governing the public or professional office. No federal law recognizes the services or the duties of the coroners. But, due to the specialty need for a coroner, States are inclined to acknowledge its importance. This is where the problem lies. Despite the national recognition that a professional coroner is required, little is done to execute it. Some states including South Carolina, Mississippi and New Orleans elect their coroners. For example, in South Carolina, a construction business owner doubles up as the coroner while in Orleans, the obstetrician also serves as the pathologist. This has raised numerous questions on the competence of the public office.
A competent death investigation is determined as the unbiased professional examination of a body based on professional skill set and talent gathered during forensic classes or education. But, due to the limitation in resources and personnel, States across the country have had to make do with what is available. But, there are numerous factors associated with the death investigation. According to the Frontline 2018 report, several State sanctioned coroner’s offices are not fully equipped to handle dead bodies. For instance, the case in South Carolina where a dead body drifted into the state line and the incompetent coroner was required to carry out the postmortem. Due to lack of refrigeration facilities, the coroner decided to transport the body to a nearby state while the organization continued to decompose. When the professional coroner admitted to not having the best body to examine, the corpse was returned to South Carolina and cremated due to lack of storage facility. It turned out that the body was of a missing middle-aged man related to Michael Jordan. The coroner indicated that he thought the body might have been that of Michael Jordan and through dental reports, it turned out right. The downside to this is that the media was skeptic about the professionalism of the coroner without highlighting the main problem in its entirety.
The problem lies within the States- which are not fully aware of the services that the coroner’s office plays in death investigation. Lack of proper law to identify the qualifications needed by a coroner limit the competence of a pathologist. For instance, Dr. Thomas Gill is an inter-state pathologist who has worked in more than five states in America. Based on the investigation under Frontline, it was discovered that Dr. Thomas was not a pathologist by trade and his prior career was that of a tertiary institution lecturer. After losing his position in the University, Dr. Thomas Gill migrated to different states where many unprofessional accusations followed him. They included arrest due to drinking under the influence and misrepresentation of evidence after an investigation of bodies. The underlying issue is that individuals elected to be pathologist are provided with the power to determine the cause of death, and this leads to numerous open cases where the living are left with more questions than answers.
There is a lot left to be desired in the public office, and there is a lot that needs to be done to ensure that the dead are provided with the right respect. According to the interview with Frontline investigator, State laws are punitive to ensure that the pathologist office is granted the best resources and personnel for death investigation (Wagmo et al., 2014). For example, in California, a pathologist office sought to get a new refrigerator that was equipped to handling dead bodies through grants. The need for coroner’s offices to find grants through private and limited public funding highlights the challenges that the office faces. There is a need to consider the recognition that the offices are pivotal to the running of any society and the entire country.
Additionally, there is a need to integrate a Federal law that assimilates the functions, roles, and responsibilities of the pathologist offices. The Federal law is the law that breaks the camel’s back in ensuring that from State levels, the governors and other officials recognize the fundamental role played by the office(Wagmo et al., 2014). For example, according to the investigative report, Dr. Thomas Gill migrated from state to state where each state recognized the incompetence of the ‘pathologist’ in conducting autopsies. Similar cases have been reported in Orleans under Dr. Paul McGarry who has numerous misrepresentations of evidence when it came to police related murders of civilians.
Moreover, there is need to instill an oversight board that is the checks and balance to the professional office in ensuring that all the roles and responsibilities are conducted effectively(Wagmo et al., 2014). The board will ensure that the individuals working in the office are registered and have the right professional qualifications to conduct services whether private or public based. By ensuring that there are staffed and resourced coroner’s offices, more and more deaths, both murders and homicides will be reported adequately.
Hanzlick, R. (2016). Death investigation: systems and procedures. CRC Press.
Wangmo, T., Ruiz, G., Sinclair, J., Mangin, P., & Elger, B. S. (2014). The investigation of deaths in custody: a qualitative analysis of problems and prospects. Journal of forensic and legal medicine, 25, 30-37
CDC. (2018). Deaths in America. National Centre for Health Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/fastats/deaths.htm
Post Mortem: Death Investigation in America. Published by Frontline (2018). Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/post-mortem/
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