Lessons from the Coroner’s Office

My latest novel, Mind Games, is available now on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited!

This is the first book in my new Fox County Forensics series and if you enjoy shows like CSI and Rizzoli and Isles, I think you’re gonna love it.

Kelsey is an energetic rookie investigator determined to impress her boss despite struggling with OCD. Zara is the seasoned police officer who reports to Kelsey’s first death scene… and she just so happens to be terrified of dead bodies.

I had a ton of fun researching the forensic side of this romance. I’m lucky enough to have a little bit of personal experience – I interned at my county coroner’s office during high school, worked closely with the chemist and got to watch an autopsy.

But I also relied heavily on my dad for forensic details – he was an investigator for 30 years and he was really enthusiastic about being the ‘subject matter expert’ for Mind Games. I did a formal interview with him to get the basics down, and I thought it would be fun to share his answers!

Check that out below, and check out Mind Games on Amazon today.

What personal protective gear (PPE) do you wear during a standard autopsy?

Normally when doing an autopsy the PPE is linen type gown, plastic apron, gloves, shoe covers, and mask with eye protection. Also, under all of this is scrubs, top and bottom.

How long would it take for the investigation, autopsy and toxicology to be completed?

The autopsy a few hours, investigation at the scene from 1 hour up to 6 or 8 hours depending on complexity of the case. Tox could take a few hours up to a few days depending on what you are looking for. The more common the drug the less time the more exotic the drug the longer it may take. It may be that the drug you are looking for you don’t test in house and you may need to send out a sample for outside testing at a reference lab.

How long for the coroner to make a ruling and close the case?

It could take anywhere from 6 weeks (that’s a short time period), up to months. Again it depends on what you are waiting on. You could be waiting on further drug testing, more investigation, etc. It depends on the answers you get to what info you have requested. For instance you may ask the police to do further investigation depending on what you found at the autopsy. So, if you find blunt trauma on the body and want to know if there is anything at the scene that could have been used to make that mark, you would inform the police and ask them to do more investigation to see if they could find a weapon matching the mark on the body.

Are toxicology reports done for all cases? If not, what prompts the coroner to request it?

Normally tox is not done in all cases as a matter of protocol. But due to the drug epidemic we are in there is more emphasis on tox today than ever before. Tox will always be done in the case where the autopsy does not show a cause of death. Also, tox will be done if the person is a known drug user or there are drugs or drug paraphernalia found at the scene. Or just to rule out a drug overdose. Also, tox may be done as a matter of protocol in homicide cases.

If an investigator got bodily fluids on their clothes at a scene, what would they do?

I don’t think there is any protocol for that (although I may be wrong), but what I would do is to immediately change my clothes upon leaving the scene. And depending on the case, I may destroy the clothing. If the decedent is a high risk of communicable disease I would definitely trash the clothing at the office in a biohazard bag/container.

Can family members request copies of the coroner’s reports?

They can. Reports are public record.

What if the police are still investigating other aspects of the case?

If there is an ongoing investigation the case would not be closed, or signed out. And we would not release anything until it is signed out. We may speak with the family member to try to answer questions. Also, if there is potential litigation, such as in a homicide death we would be very careful in releasing any information including any reports. In that case where a request is made for reports in a homicide case we would confer with the Prosecutors office and let them make the call.

How many officers would respond to a death scene like the one in Mind Games?

Normally you would get the patrol officer responding initially. Then in the case of a death the patrol officer would call the detective bureau and on average 1 or 2 detectives would respond. This would depend on the complexity of the case and size of the police jurisdiction. Larger jurisdictions may have more people on hand to respond.

What about a scene where there’s a home invasion in progress, the suspect is fleeing on foot, there’s one resident injured and another dead? Would the police wait until the suspect was dealt with and the injured resident removed before they called in the death investigator?

Yep, that is usually the way it goes.

What do the police do to assist the investigator at the scene?

Normally the police do a criminal investigation and the ME investigator does a medical legal death investigation. Both sides work together to come to a successful conclusion. The police may answer questions the ME investigator has. For instance, if a gun was involved and it has been moved you may want to know who moved it and why. You may need to know who first found the body and where they are so you can interview them, etc. There are a host of questions you may have for the police regarding the investigation.

Does all evidence go with the investigator to the ME’s office, or does the police take some of it to the station? If it is split up, how do they decide what goes where?

Some goes to the police and some to the ME. This all depends on the jurisdiction. All are different. We usually let the police take any weapon but they are required to bring that weapon to the autopsy. We would take all medications and/or drugs. To decide who takes what that depends on what is going to be done with the evidence. Some evidence will be submitted to the BCI lab, that’s the Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Investigation. If it’s going to BCI the police would take it because they would submit it. No sense of us taking it then having to receipt it to the police so they can submit it to BCI.

When does the medical examiner (ME) release their evidence to the police?

That depends. If we do fingerprints, hair samples, nail clippings, body fluid collection that is done at the time of autopsy. When the police attend the autopsy we would release that evidence at the end of the autopsy. If the evidence is bloody clothing it needs to be hung up and dried before it can be bagged. If it is bagged wet it will produce mold. This drying process would take a day or two. Once dry we would contact the policed and let them know it can be picked up.

Under what circumstances does the ME retain evidence indefinitely?

Evidence that is retained is usually evidence that we have collected as a matter of protocol and may not be deemed evidence by the prosecutor. For instance we routinely collect Gun Shot Residue (GSR), this is a kit. We collect it routinely in the case if a suicide in case there is any dispute concerning the manner of death in the future. Fingerprints also fall into this category as well as hair samples, nail clippings and biological swabs.

Do all investigators use a communal set of investigation kits or is each investigator issued their own kit?

Our investigators all have their own investigation kit with standard items included. GSR kits, forms, blood tubes, camera, gloves, plastic apron, syringe, needles, etc. Big thanks to my dad for answering the thousand-and-one questions I had, and to everyone who’s been reading and reviewing Mind Games since its launch!

Grab your copy now

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