Coroner Scene Investigation

Kansas state statutes require that the County Coroner determine the cause and manner of all unattended deaths. Douglas County has established a program to assist the Coroner with the determination of cause and manner of death. In 1995, the County established a team of specially trained and certified medicolegal death investigators. Known as Coroner’s Scene Investigators (CSIs), the team consists of seven members from the Lawrence Douglas County Fire Medical Department who complete the medicolegal death investigation course through the University of St. Louis School of Medicine and are members of the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMDI). The team is part of the Investigations Branch of the Prevention Division. The Lawrence-Douglas County Fire Medical Fire Marshal supervises the CSI program.

Any death that is the sudden or unexpected or the result of a homicide, suicide or an accident triggers a coroner’s investigation. Other examples of cases requiring investigation are deaths of juveniles, deaths that occur in custody, any death that occurs within 24 hours of admission to a hospital or deaths in which identification of the body is not certain.

Investigations vary in their complexity depending upon the particular circumstances of each individual case. For example, an uncomplicated investigation of an unattended natural death may be as simple as contacting the decedent’s personal physician and family members to gather pertinent medical information that will determine the cause of death. On the other end of the spectrum are deaths that are not the result of natural causes, which include accidental deaths, homicides and suicides. Complicated investigations may entail gathering pertinent medical information about the decedent from physicians, hospitals and pharmacies; coordinating with law enforcement personnel; working with other government and medical agencies; assisting with the initiation of funeral director services; contacting family members, or; contacting counseling services to assist those in the primary stages of the grieving process.

In each case, the CSI reports to the scene of the death and reports preliminary findings to the Coroner. It is then up to the discretion of the Coroner to determine whether his presence is required at the scene. If the Coroner is present at the scene, the CSI assists the Coroner with processing the scene. In the event that the Coroner is not present at the scene, the CSI photographs the entire scene, examines the body, and prepares the body for transport to the Coroner’s office. The CSI then interviews family members and others who may have information regarding the health of the decedent, gathers pertinent medical history, and conducts any other tasks to assist the Coroner in the determination of cause, manner and mechanism of death. The cause of death is the disease or injury that starts the lethal chain of events, brief or prolonged, which ultimately ends in death. The cause of death may be an event that took place weeks, months or even years before the actual death occurs. The mechanism of death is the "physiological" change through which the cause of death exerts is lethal influence. The manner of death is classified as natural, accident, homicide, suicide, or undetermined depending on the findings at the scene and at autopsy. It is imperative to determine answers to these questions for both criminal and civil purposes.

The Douglas County Coroner is Dr. Erik Mitchell, MD. The Deputy Coroners are Dr. Altaf Hossain, MD, and Dr. Michael Handler, MD. All three are board-certified forensic pathologists. Douglas County has a contractual agreement with Frontier Forensics for the provision of coroner services, including information storage of all coroner cases for Douglas County. All post mortem exams occur at Frontier Forensics, located at 40 South 18th Street, Kansas City, Kansas. The phone number is 913-299-1533. The web address is www.frontierforensics.com. Frontier Forensics is a privately owned autopsy facility that provides services for a number of counties across Kansas and Missouri.

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