Elizabeth Ortiz, MS, F-ABMDI

The new school year has started and new memories will soon be created. It does not matter whether it is your first year of attending Regis University or it is the second, third or fourth year, new memories will be created. When the time comes for commencement, we can then reflect on the memories created. Did we make a significant impact to not only create memories but also contribute to history? I like to believe we contribute to changes in history. This brings me to the changes in my office. Recently my office had an open house and I was able to teach the guests a little about the history of death investigation.

As an investigator for the coroner’s office, I have the privilege of looking and reading old cases from 1954 and on. Some of the files are what we would consider incomplete nowadays, but it shows how much things have changed in the perspective of investigating deaths. It is not uncommon to find a file from 1955 (our office only has a few 1954 cases, 1955 appears to be the year our office truly started compiling the files) in which it only contains a death certificate and some notes of the case. More often than not it just contains a death certificate which does not explain why that person died. Granted, the death certificate provides a cause and manner but how did that person get to that point? Some files have notes from the investigator, the death certificate and on the rare occasion, the autopsy report.

The autopsy report was typed on rice paper and provided minimal information even though an autopsy was conducted. Compared to today’s autopsy reports which consist of up to nine pages and a toxicology report, these older cases just provided information of the injury and basic descriptors. This is also inclusive of a homicide case. A homicide case normally takes up to twelve pages, but that is all dependent on the amount of injuries sustained by the victim. For example, if a victim has 168 stab wounds then it will take up to twenty or more pages. The reason the report contains so many more pages is that every wound has to be described individually which includes the direction of the stab wound, location on the body (body diagram is divided to reflect quadrants rather than just the front or back of the body) and organs affected. The same can be said of gunshot wounds.

For example, the abdomen is divided into four quadrants and the stab wound would be identified as being in the upper right quadrant of the abdomen as opposed to just identifying the stab wound in the area of the abdomen. The abdomen is a large area and it would not provide an accurate representation of where the stab wound was located. The same is done with the chest but not with the extremities. The extremities can be identified as right or left. The back is divided as upper and lower. In all, this is done to provide accurate documentation of the injuries but also for the jury to understand the injuries. In essence, the reports are much more detailed which provides a clear picture of why that person died.

The same can be said with regards to the paperwork turned in by students at Regis University nowadays. A capstone can be considered incomplete if graphs and diagrams are not presented because it would not provide a complete picture of what was being presented. Regis is known for exemplary acts of leadership, stewardship and devotion to a cause. I’m sure if we spoke to the first pioneers of Regis University, they probably could not provide detailed information of how they envisioned Regis. However, their vision provided us with a goal in which we try to encompass into our lives.

The same cannot be said for the deaths investigated by my office in the 1950s. I’m sure they believed they were doing the best they could. Now we know we need to do more to help the surviving families of those who have died. In addition, our office is better equipped to identify cases that present themselves as a natural death and in reality are homicides. Therefore, we should always embrace change and make a difference as to how history is made.