I participated in an internship with the Death Investigation Unit of the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office.
The purpose of the investigator is sometimes shadowed by the interesting day to day work he/she completes and is often misunderstood. Simply put, the purpose of the TCME investigator is to collect medically relevant evidence relating to a death so that the pathologist can better understand the situational context of an individual pre-autopsy. When interviewing one of the investigators in the office, he explained that he believes the most important task of the investigator is understanding which questions to ask and executing a substantial interview with the law enforcement, doctors, or other people involved with a case, whether that case is a homicide, suicide, accidental, hospice, or natural death. He indicated that reviewing reports and digging for more information, even on what seems a simple case, may reveal that medical professionals and law enforcement alike very often make mistakes and can alter the results of the final death certificate. He simply stated that the purpose of his job is to collect as much information as possible, in all situations, to provide the medical examiner with a clear introduction to what may have happened to a particular decedent. From there, the medical examiner can provide an accurate cause and manner of death on the death certificate.
It is also worth mentioning than many people commonly mistake a death investigator with a crime scene investigator and it seems important to quickly indicate the difference. While crime scene investigators investigate crime scenes only, death investigators will investigate all scenes where a death has taken place that appears to be unnatural. Additionally, crime scene investigators will focus more on the scene surrounding the body to look for clues that may link a criminal with the crime scene, whereas the death investigator will focus solely on the body, and only look for clues that may explain why the person died. It is not the job of a TCME investigator to figure out- in any way whatsoever- who committed the crime, if there is one involved with the death.
Death investigator duties I was involved with included taking reports of hospice deaths, responding to deaths reported by APD (usually), identifying and contacting the legal next of kin of the decedents, and preparing a pre-autopsy report for the doctors. My additional duties as an intern included clerical work such as filing and organizing, assisting with note-taking and photography at scenes, answering phones, assisting with skeletal analyses, and contacting agencies to request information or medical records. I also assisted with an Accountability Check at the beginning of each shift to ensure that all the bodies and their corresponding personal effects are accounted for. There were usually around twenty individuals to be accounted for, including bodies ready for autopsies, bodies waiting pick-up following the autopsy, skeletal remains, and decomposed bodies (there are two coolers that need to be checked—one for regular bodies and skeletal remains and one for decomposed remains).
While the ultimate responsibility of the TCMEO Death Investigation Unit is to provide a general scene description and introduction for the Medical Examiner completing the autopsy, there is a long list of responsibilities and procedures that are required to achieve this. During my time as an intern at TCMEO, I learned these procedures and the importance of executing them accurately. Additionally, I learned that my background in anthropology is useful, even in somewhat unexpected fields. In this particular field, the anthropologist’s knowledge of forensics, osteology, and cultural competency showed to be useful tools while operating within the realm of death investigation.