A Day in the Life of a Death Investigator

Elizabeth Ortiz, MS, F-ABMDI

I am a Medicolegal Death Investigator, or commonly referred to, a death investigator. I have been investigating deaths for over nine years and prior to that, I spent an additional nine years assisting in autopsies. As a death investigator, the beginning of a shift never starts the same. The shift can bring various needs for follow up from cases brought in the night before. The follow up can consist of calling a primary care physician to verify the medical history of a deceased person, to calling a crime lab with the time of the autopsy about the case they are investigating. The uncertainty of the day is what I thoroughly enjoy.

As a death investigator, I have to assure that what was noted in the scene corresponds to what is going to be seen at the autopsy. Granted, not all of the deaths reported to the coroner’s office are warranted an autopsy. If a deceased person has significant medical history, the scene was consistent with what was reported by the reporting party, and the investigation provides a scene consistent with what was reported, our office can then reach out the primary care physician. By reaching out to the primary care physician, we can provide them with the information needed to sign the death certificate. The death certificate is signed by the primary care physician and then submitted to the department of vital statistics. These cases are then deemed as mortuary holds and do not fall under the jurisdiction of the coroner.

The cases which would fall under the jurisdiction of the coroner are the cases where the deceased has had a traumatic event, does not have significant medical history that can be attributed to the death, or is in the custody of a law enforcement agency. Actually, the Colorado Revised Statutes provides us with a definitive list of cases that should be investigated by the coroner’s office thus ensuring those individuals who have died can still have a voice if indeed something has ended their lives prematurely. I have always said, “I am the voice for those who can no longer speak.”

As stated earlier, my days do not have a routine and I embrace that aspect of my job. The “easiest” cases are those from hospitals. Every hospital has to report all deaths if they have been in the hospital for less than twenty-four hours. The reported cases from the hospital vary from a natural death to a death caused by another, homicide. Many of the natural deaths are from individuals who reside in nursing homes and who have been transported emergently to a local hospital. After resuscitative measures have failed, the death is pronounced. The coroner’s office is then notified of the death. As stated above, if this individual has significant medical history and the primary care physician will sign the death certificate, the case will be documented, but our office will not conduct an autopsy. The deceased person can then be released to a local funeral home selected by the family.

If the death reported from the hospital is from someone who has taken their own life, suicide, then it is my duty to find out as much as possible from the nurse regarding the deceased since my scene investigation has been compromised. If the deceased has died from a gunshot wound, how did they determine it was self-inflicted? What is the deceased person’s prior medical history? Have there been other attempts? What have paramedics noted? What has the law enforcement agency investigating this case noted? Finally, what has the family said? The same can be said of a drug overdose or a hanging. These types of cases are difficult due to the fact that I have to rely on someone else to provide me with the facts of the case, rather than me finding the facts. In all, I will try to determine why this person ended their life. It is not just the fact that they ended their life, but what were the events that lead this person to end their life.

This is where my degree in psychology comes in handy, but also my degree in criminology. As a graduate of Regis’ Master of Science in Criminology program, a school that prides itself in astounding writing skills and the ability to articulate professionally and effectively, I am able to help be the voice of these individuals. As I write my report regarding the suicidal death of an individual, I have to prove the deceased did end his/her life, how I obtained the information, from who did I obtain the information, and the events that led to that choice. It is a thorough investigation, particularly since a homicide can be manipulated to appear as a suicide.

Anywhere there is an unattended death, I have to respond. Some cases take me out to the field, responding to a residence, a lake, a roadway or a hotel. In some cases I also have to meet with the family of the deceased. If I do not meet the family of the deceased at the scene, then I am tasked with notifying them of the death either by responding to their residence or calling the local law enforcement agency to inform the legal next of kin of the death. This, in my opinion, is the hardest part of my job. The raw emotions I have seen have sometimes brought me to tears. I have seen family members cry inconsolably, burst into angry fits of rage, or calmly accept the course of life. I have prayed with families, and I have hugged families. However, I have also left scenes as quickly as possible due to the fact I feared for my safety, sometimes the way they are expressing their grief can be destructive to them as well as to me. In all, not one day as a death investigator is routine. I am always challenged to think outside of the box, to ensure that I have not missed anything, to provide detailed reports for the pathologist, and to still be the voice of the deceased. Ultimately, I am the last person to speak up if something appears to be wrong. I am the voice of those who have been silenced.

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