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Undetermined Death

Elizabeth Ortiz, MS, F-ABMDI

In life, we all have a certain expectation of having all of our questions, concerns and inquiries answered with an answer that makes sense to us. An answer that does not defy the core of our beliefs. In essence, the answers we seek give us fulfillment, but in death, it is not always that way. The classification of death falls under five categories; natural, accident, suicide, homicide, and undetermined. The first four can, for the most part, be easily explained, but it is the last category that requires some explanation.

A death is ruled undetermined after a thorough investigation, both in the legal aspect as well as the medical aspect, have not revealed a conclusive manner of death. The manner of death is equally as important as the cause of death, particularly in insurance benefits. For example, a drug overdose is a cause of death which is due to an intoxication of illicit or licit drugs. The drug levels for the licit drugs do not need to be in the toxic level or even in the lethal level, there just has to be enough of an interaction of the medication to cause the death. Additionally, if there are multiple licit drugs, high levels are also not necessary, a drug overdose can occur due to the interactions of the drugs with one another even in the therapeutic level. The pathologist will evaluate the toxicological results and based on the circumstances surrounding the death, the manner will be determined.

What could be the circumstances surrounding the death? Was the individual a regular drug user and recently purchased a batch of heroin too pure for his/her body to handle? Or has he/she been recently released from prison and decided to use the same amount they had used prior to being incarcerated but now their bodies have been “clean” for the amount of the jail sentence. Their bodies will not have the same tolerance they had prior to the incarceration, and thus it leads to death. These examples would lead the pathologist to rule the death as an accidental death because it was not their intention to take their life but rather the unfortunate set of events prior to the death.

However, a drug overdose caused by someone else is considered a homicide. As a coroner’s office, we do not ascertain the intent of the individual administering the drug, law enforcement investigates the intent. Once the intent has been established, the various charges for murder can be addressed - murder in the first degree or manslaughter are just two of the possible charges. The coroner’s office looks at the definition of homicide as the following; when one human causes the death of another. Therefore, the certification of the death certificate does not depend on the intent of another person but rather one person took the life of another.

A suicidal individual may take a large quantity of a drug or multiple drugs to end their lives, and this would be considered a suicide due to a drug overdose. The intent is this person willingly wanted to end their life and thus used drugs (illicit and licit) to end their life. Suicides due to a drug overdose sometimes tend to be difficult to determine and this is where the undetermined manner of death can be used. Ideally, as an investigator, I should be able to find a history of depression, suicide attempts, suicidal ideations and so forth but when those elements are not found, the question I have to ask myself is why would this individual want to end their life?

If after doing a medical/social history I cannot find a reason for the drug overdose, the pathologist will rule the death undetermined until further information is provided. This information can be provided by family members, friends, and coworkers later on in time. Unfortunately, many times we do not find the reason and the manner of death is left as undetermined. The only effect an undetermined death can have would be with an insurance policy. The insurance company might not pay out to the beneficiary the amount due for the death.

Ultimately, as an office, we investigate all deaths thoroughly but there are times when we cannot achieve the answers needed to provide comfort to a family. It is these cases that lead me to work more effectively and thoroughly to ensure this does not happen to a family. I would add that working compassionately and with determination, the results can be different. This is also true with regards to achieving your master’s in criminology.

Know what you are looking for, research what you have in front of you and never stop looking. Sometimes the answer you are seeking is somewhere in the mix. Regis University provides ample opportunities to seek out what you are looking for and provide you with the tools to be successful in life.

Are you interested in learning more about the online MS in criminology degree at Regis? Request more information or call 877-820-0581.