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The Courthouse Journal is the official newsletter of the Washington Association of County Officials. Along with a newsletter to members, WACO also hosts the Courthouse Journal blog.

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Nov 12

The Job of a Washington County Coroner

Posted on November 12, 2020 at 11:51 AM by Melanie Terry

Courthouse Journal Blog  

November 13th, 2020  

The Job of a Washington County Coroner 

 

Although there is clear and direct information about the Washington County Coroner’s/Medical Examiner's job, it remains a position that faces some public confusion. Through this blog, we examine the difference between Coroners and Medical Examiners while also debunking some common misconceptions about the job position 

The following are five commonly asked questions about the job of the County Coroner and how they operate as a county official.  

1. What is the difference between a Coroner and Medical Examiner? 

  • Typically, the role of a Medical Examiner is appointed and not elected. 

  • Unlike the elected County Coroner, the Medical Examiner is a physician, typically a board-certified forensic pathologist by the American Board of Pathology. 

  • The Medical Examiner may conduct autopsies if credentialed. 


 

2. What Counties have Medical Examiners and which Counties have Coroners? 

  • In counties under 40,000 in population, the elected County Prosecutor serves as ex-officio County Coroner (currently 14 counties*). 

  • Charter counties can adopt their own medicolegal system. In six of the seven counties they have adopted a Medical Examiner system. One county has adopted a Prosecutor/Coroner system. 

*Douglas County currently exceeds 40,000 residents and will move to an elected County Coroner ?system? at ?the? next? election? of? county? officials. 

 

3. So, if most counites have Coroner, who are they and what do they do? 

Who is a County Coroner? 

  • The County Coroner is the elected official tasked with overseeing the medicolegal system of a county. 

  • The medicolegal system is a unique confluence of investigative and medical skill sets.  

  • The Coroner is responsible for the culmination of both the investigative and medical side of a death investigation for deaths in their jurisdiction 

What do they do? 

The County Coroner investigates deaths to determine two factors: 

1. Cause of Death  

Medical in nature. Aided by a Forensic Pathologist’s investigation. This would include autopsies, toxicology testing, micro testing, and more. A Forensic Pathologist ONLY determines the medical cause of death, not the manner and mechanism of death 

2. Manner and Mechanism of Death 

Investigation may include field work such as blood draws for testing, collecting decomp samples, and investigation of other factors; as well as coordination with law enforcement, doctors, and families; witness testimony, and more. 

 

4. How does a Coroner investigate the cause of death? 

The County Coroner does NOT conduct the autopsy. 

  • The job of conducting an autopsy is for a medically training Forensic Pathologist. The Forensic Pathologist may be an employee of a County Coroner office or contracted by a County Coroner office. Currently there is only between 350-450 board certified Forensic Pathologists working in the United States. 

  • Toxicology tests to help determine a cause of death are sent to either the State Toxicology Lab, or a certified toxicology lab contracted by the County Coroner. 

  •  Other lab work as determined by the Forensic Pathologist to determine the cause of death. 

  • Consulting with the deceased medical physicians (if known) and reviewing medical records. 


 

5. How does a Coroner investigate the Manner of death? 

In order to investigate the manner of death the County Coroner has legal authority to properly carry out their job, such as: 

  • Subpoena powers  

  • HIPPA exemptions for medical records and information 

  • After gathering the investigative materials, a Coroner may determine that the manner of death was natural, accidental, homicidal, suicidal, pending, or indeterminate. 

 

 
In partnership with The Washington Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners (WACME), The Washington Association of County Officials (WACO) is working hard to bring more public awareness to the position of County Coroner and Medical Examiner. We continue to share facts and resources through our social media channels, which you can find below.  

Facebook  

 

If you have any questions, please contact WACO Deputy Director Timothy Grisham, Tim@countyofficials.org.