coroner

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Coroner

An official of a Municipal Corporation whose designated functions include the investigation of the cause of any violent or suspicious death that takes place within the geographical boundaries of his or her municipality.

The office of the coroner was established at Common Law and was one of great dignity since coroners dealt primarily with pleas concerning the crown. In the early 2000s, statutes establish the terms and procedure of the coroner's office, which has been replaced in some states with the office of medical examiner.

The main function of a coroner is to conduct inquests, but other powers and duties may include the duty of acting as sheriff, in the event of the sheriff's incapacity, as conservator of the peace, or as magistrate. The duties are considered to be either judicial, ministerial, or both.

Holding Inquests

The purpose of an inquest is to gather evidence that may be used by the police in their exploration of a violent or suspicious death and the subsequent prosecution of a person if death ensued from a criminal act.

An inquest is not a trial but rather a criminal proceeding of a preliminary, investigatory nature. It is not a criminal prosecution but may result in the discovery of facts justifying one.

Statutes mandate that whenever there exists reasonable ground to believe that a death resulted from violence, unlawful means, or other mysterious or unknown causes, an inquest must be held. Death by disease, natural causes, Negligence of the deceased, accident, or suicide does not warrant the commencement of an inquest, unless statute so requires.

A coroner should not arbitrarily or capriciously hold an inquest. The presumption is that when a coroner decides to hold an inquest it is made in exercise of his or her sound discretion, in Good Faith, and for sufficient cause. Most statutes require that a coroner make a preliminary inquiry into the cause of death before summoning a jury.

Time and Place The general requirement is that an inquest be held immediately upon the notice to the coroner of the death or discovery of the dead body. The inquest may either take place in the territory of the coroner in whose jurisdiction the body was found or where the death itself took place.

Summoning and Swearing the Jury If it is public knowledge that the decedent was killed by someone who is already in police custody, then it is not necessary to summon a jury to hold an inquest. A coroner's jury is usually summoned by warrant but may be summoned personally by the coroner. A juror who refuses to attend an inquest may be subject to a fine and a Contempt citation. The general practice is that the jury should be sworn in in the presence of the body.

Autopsy Incident to the coroner's duties is the power to order an autopsy when appropriate and essential to ascertain the circumstances and the nature of death. The reasons underlying this power are numerous—the primary one being that a thorough examination of a body is necessary since an accused person may be acquitted if there is some doubt as to the cause of death. Similarly, a proper examination of the cause of death should exclude all other possible causes that would not support a criminal investigation and subsequent prosecution.

Some statutes provide that a coroner is not authorized to hold an autopsy where no suspicion of foul play exists or where no inquest is being held. A needless autopsy may be considered unreasonable interference with a dead body. If authorized, however, a coroner may hold an autopsy without the consent of the decedent's next of kin. Civil liability may be imposed upon coroners and their physicians who perform improper or unauthorized autopsies.

To examine the body during an autopsy, a coroner may hire an expert physician, the selection of whom is within the coroner's discretion. This power must be exercised with great caution. During the autopsy, the coroner has the discretionary power to decide who, if anyone, should be present aside from the surgeon or surgeons. Neither a person accused of criminally causing the death nor the jurors have a right to witness the actual dissection of the cadaver.

View of Body Statutes require that the coroner and jury together must have a view of the body except in cases where the body cannot be found or is too decomposed for view. The purpose of this inspection is to ascertain from the appearance of the body how the death was caused. The jury also hears the summaries of various medical reports regarding the condition of the body to help it reach its determinations concerning the cause of death.

Verdict and Inquisition It is the duty of the coroner to accept from the jury the verdict, which should identify the deceased, if possible, or state that the deceased is unknown and should include how, when, and where the decedent died. The coroner submits a return of inquest, also known as an inquisition, which is a record of the jury's finding, that must be executed in accordance with statutory requirements.

The effect of the verdict at common law is that it is a sufficient basis for prosecution for murder or Manslaughter so long as the jury finds evidence supporting prosecution. Under some statutes, its effect is not as strong as a finding by a Grand Jury but has merely been held to render a person accused of illegally causing the death liable to arrest.

Many jurisdictions require that the coroner complete a certificate of death showing the cause and probable manner of death subsequent to the termination of the inquest.

Arrest

It is the power and the duty of the coroner to have anyone implicated by an inquest in murder or manslaughter to be arrested and held for trial. If a statute gives a coroner magisterial jurisdiction in Homicide cases, he or she may issue warrants for the arrest of the person probably chargeable with the crime and hold the person to answer or discharge the charges.

Record of Inquest as Evidence

Civil Actions In general, evidence given at an inquest has not been permitted to be used against either party in a civil action. There are, however, exceptions to this rule. Some authorities hold the testimony of a witness before a coroner to be admissible if used to contradict other testimony given when the person is a witness or party in such an action. Other jurisdictions hold that such evidence by a party is admissible as an admission against interest. For example, a defendant's admission at an inquest of driving at an unlawful speed was admissible as an admission against interest in a civil action for negligence.

Some jurisdictions allow the coroner's findings to be used in a civil action to show the cause of death. The general practice in most jurisdictions, however, is to allow the verdict to show that the deceased is dead but not to show the cause of death. The rationale underlying this rule is that a person is not entitled to be represented by counsel at an inquest since it is merely a preliminary investigation. The practical consequences of allowing the coroner's verdict to be used as evidence of the cause of death is that it could easily become the key piece of evidence in the action. If this were to occur, the judgment awarded in the case would probably end up being a ratification or formal adoption of the coroner's verdict, thereby depriving the party to the action of his or her rights. That person is entitled to a formal judicial hearing or a "day in court," with all procedural safeguards, so that an opportunity to dispute the evidence will be given.

Criminal Prosecutions The main purpose of a coroner's inquest is to provide information and evidence for use by the police in their investigation and detection of a crime; therefore, the proceedings of an inquest are generally inadmissible at a trial for homicide.

When a person is either under arrest or accused of a crime at a coroner's inquest, any testimony that he or she gives cannot subsequently be used against him or her at a trial that stems from the inquest, unless such testimony was given voluntarily after the party was advised of his or her constitutional rights. If an individual testifies as a witness at an inquest but is subsequently prosecuted, that testimony is admissible in his or her prosecution since it was voluntarily given at the inquest. Generally, the testimony of witnesses at an inquest cannot be used in a trial for homicide unless the witness has died or is otherwise unavailable at the time of the criminal prosecution.

Ordinarily, on an indictment for homicide, neither the verdict of the coroner's jury nor the finding of the coroner can be used as evidence for any purpose.

Liabilities of a Coroner

A coroner who is acting pursuant to his or her statutory authority is immune for error, mistake, or misconduct in the exercise of judicial functions. A coroner, acting in a ministerial capacity, is answerable for any abuse of those powers. Some statutes make it a criminal offense for a coroner to deliberately hold an inquest when to do so clearly exceeds the scope of his or her powers.

Further readings

Cornwell, Patricia. 1999. Body of Evidence. New York: Pocket Books.

Noguchi, Thomas T. 1985. Coroner at Large. New York: Simon & Schuster.

——. 1984. Coroner. New York: Pocket Books.

Cross-references

Autopsy; Jury; Presumption.

coroner

n. a county official with the responsibility to determine the cause of death of anyone who dies violently (by attack or accident), suddenly, or suspiciously. The coroner or one of his/her staff must examine the body at the scene of such a death and make a report. If the cause is not obvious or certified by an attending physician, then the coroner may order a "coroner's inquest" which requires an autopsy (post-mortem). If that is not conclusive, the coroner may hold a hearing as part of the inquest, although this is rare due to scientific advances in pathology. (See: forensic medicine, post mortem)

coroner

a quasi-judicial figure in the English legal system. A lawyer or a doctor, his principal jurisdiction is to inquire, sometimes with a jury, into the cause of death of persons dying within his territorial jurisdiction and to pronounce on whether, for example, the death was homicide, by misadventure, accidental cause or suicide. The coroner also holds inquiries into matters of TREASURE TROVE.

In the Isle of Man a similar function is carried out by the coroner of inquests. There the coroner is an officer of the court who enforces judgments.

CORONER. An officer whose principal duty it is to hold an inquisition, with the assistance of a jury, over the body of any person who may have come to a violent death, or who has died in prison. It is his duty also, in case of the death of the sheriff, or when a vacancy happens in that office, to serve all the writs and process which the sheriff is usually bound to serve. The chief justice of the King's Bench is the sovereign or chief coroner of all England, although it is not to be understood that he performs the active duties of that office in any one count. 4 Rep. 57, b. Vide Bac. Ab. h.t.; 6 Vin. Ab.242; 3 Com. Dig. 242; 5 Com. Dig. 212; and the articles Death; Inquisition.
     2. The duties of the coroner are of the greatest consequence to society, both for the purpose of bringing to punishment murderers and other offenders against the lives of the citizens, and of protecting innocent persons from criminal accusations. His office, it is to be regretted, is regarded with too much indifference. This officer should be properly acquainted with the medical and legal knowledge so absolutely indispensable in the faithful discharge of his office. It not unfrequently happens that the public mind is deeply impressed with the guilt of the accused, and when probably he is guilty, and yet the imperfections of the early examinations leave no alternative to the jury but to acquit. It is proper in most cases to procure the examination to be made by a physician, and in some cases, it is his duty. 4 Car. & P. 571.

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