While attending Texas State University’s graduate program in forensic anthropology, I completed an internship through the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office in the medicolegal investigation unit.
The Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office (BCMEO) is one of thirteen medical examiner’s offices in Texas, located in San Antonio on the campus of the UT Health Science Center. The building in which it is housed is called the Bexar County Forensic Science Center. The Bexar County Forensic Science Center has three floors which house the morgue, autopsy suite, investigations office, the firearms laboratory, serology, trace evidence, drug identification and toxicology laboratories, as well as the medical examiners’ offices and the forensic odontologist’s office. There is also a secure area in the BCFSC to which evidence is submitted and where it is held. The morgue is the location where bodies are brought and then fingerprinted, refrigerated, and eventually released to funeral home employees. The extensive facilities of the Forensic Science Center allow much of the analyses necessary for cases in Bexar County to be done in house. This is less expensive and more efficient than sending evidence to other labs which can charge high fees for their services, and often have a long turn-around time.
The investigator’s purpose is to gather information from the backgrounds and death scenes of deceased individuals in order to assist the pathologist in determining cause and manner of death, as well as help identify deceased individuals as necessary. The Bexar County Investigators are all licensed peace officers. They are the security for the Forensic Science Center, and are often called to dangerous scenes with large groups of upset family members. They are required to protect not only the body and evidence, but also any civilians at the scene.
The BCMEO is one of about 40 offices in the United States that is authorized to train Forensic Pathologists. It is only one of 40-45 offices accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners, and the Toxicology Section is one of only 22 accredited institutions within the United States and Canada by the American Board of Forensic Toxicology.
Investigators have a wide range of duties; they do not necessarily spend the majority of their time at scenes. In the office, medical investigators take phone calls from police officers, nursing homes, hospices, and hospitals reporting deaths, as well as family members and friends requesting information about deceased loved ones. Hospice pre-registration forms are faxed to the office 24 hours a day to notify the BCMEO to expect the death of the individual listed. When an investigator receives a phone call about a possible scene, they ask questions to determine whether their presence is necessary and if the body should be removed to the BCMEO for autopsy.
At the scene, the investigator gathers information by talking to the police and detectives on the scene, as well as checking the condition of the body. The condition would include details such as if the body is in rigor mortis, if the lividity is fixed, the position of the body, if there is any obvious trauma, and if there are any track marks from intravenous drug use. The investigator also tags the body with the case number on the wrists, and collects any prescription medications at the scene. Photographs are taken from general to specific of the body and the scene. Finally the body is placed in a white plastic body bag with a white sheet and removed by the contractors to the BCMEO. The next duty of the investigator is to talk to any family members present and explain what will happen next to their loved one. They provide the case number and a pamphlet with phone numbers that may be helpful, explain what kind of autopsy their loved one will most likely receive and why, and tell them to call if they have any questions.
Once the investigator returns to the office, they are required to write a report. Investigators write a report for every body which enters the morgue; scene observations are the main difference between these reports and those in which the investigator went to the scene. Investigators may also be called to testify in court, although testimony by the pathologists is more common.
During my time with the investigators, I attended approximately 20 scenes. Many were overdoses, although I also attended a suicide scene and some accidental deaths. I was able to view several autopsies, including one of a decomposed individual and two of homicide victims.
My time at the BCMEO was an extremely valuable learning experience. I was able to see how the office runs, and observe if not participate in most aspects of the investigators’ jobs. However, I found this job to be emotionally draining. The investigators are adept at shutting down their emotional responses to scenes and distraught family members of victims. While I practiced this and became more capable of separating the job from my own emotional response, I did find it to be quite depressing at times. The investigators deal with everything from infant and toddler deaths to frequent overdoses of people of all ages, to violent homicides and suicides. They can be very sad situations. The most difficult aspect of the job for me would be talking with family members. The investigators must be able to speak empathetically, but also efficiently convey important information to the family. These situations are difficult for anyone, but the investigators are in the position of taking away a loved one’s body.