Internship as a Death Investigator: A Glimpse Into The Other Side
Imagine for a moment: you pull into a stranger’s driveway and shut the vehicle off. Police officers are scattered around the property and yellow POLICE tape surrounds the home. You know someone inside has just been found deceased after going missing for a few days, but that is all you know. A group of people, who you can only assume are family or friends of the deceased, are standing in the street crying hysterically and holding one another. You must keep a straight face no matter what you are about to see and smell.
As you walk up to the front door, an officer greets you and gives you any information he has collected from the family, friends, or witnesses. The horrendous odor of human decomposition hits abruptly as you enter through the door, but you must remain stoic.
You begin taking photographs while the family now intently watches your every move, wondering what exactly you are doing. That’s when you step inside the home and see for yourself why the family is so upset. A middle-aged man appears to have shot himself in the head – of course, this will only be officially determined after all the evidence is gathered and assessed.
This is what any given shift is like interning with the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office.
During Summer 2018, I completed an internship with the Bexar County Medical Examiner’s Office as a Medicolegal Death Investigator. First things first: let’s go over what exactly a medical examiner is.
The Medical Examiner’s office in Bexar County is one of only thirteen medical examiner’s offices in all of Texas. The remaining counties use coroners instead of medical examiners. Despite a common misconception, these two titles are not the same. A medical examiner is a medical doctor, while a coroner is simply a person who has been elected into the position. There are places where the elected coroner has no medical training whatsoever. While they have many of the same duties, such as identifying the body, notifying the next-of-kin, and deciding on the cause and manner of death, a coroner who is not a medical doctor is not allowed to perform autopsies. In this case, the coroner must contract a doctor to perform the autopsy. In fact, the medical examiners of Bexar County often get contracted out to perform autopsies for the surrounding rural counties.
As is stated at abmdi.org, the website for The American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators, the death investigator’s job is to “investigate any death that falls under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner or coroner, including all suspicious, violent, unexplained and unexpected deaths.” It is the death investigators job to gather as much information and evidence around a death as possible so that the medical examiner can make a fully-informed ruling about the cause of death. These investigation methods include office duties such as speaking on the phone with hospital staff, hospice nurses, police officers and the like, as well as actually going out to the location of the body to take photographs and collect evidence.
The investigator must photograph every part of the body in order to document any signs of trauma, defensive wounds, or evidence of drug use. After the photographs are taken, the body will be placed into a body bag and taken to the morgue. At that point, the investigator will speak to the family (if the family is present) and inform them of what will happen next with the decedent’s body. They will be given the phone number for the medical examiner’s office and can call at any time with questions. Finally, the investigator must write up a report about all the evidence gathered via phone calls or on-site investigation. It is this report that the medical examiner will reference when deciding on an official cause of death.
During my semester spent interning as a medicolegal death investigator, I went to between fifteen and twenty scenes, including probable suicides, drug overdoses, homicides, car accidents, and scenes with no immediately-evident probable cause of death. It’s important to note that while the investigator may classify the type of scene by the apparent cause of death, their classification is simply a hypothesis until the medical examiner makes a determination. While in the office, I answered incoming phone calls and documented the information about a decedent or passed the call along to an investigator, depending on the nature of the call. Although the morgue, which operates one floor below the death investigations room, has techs that check incoming bodies in during normal business hours, it is the death investigators’ job to check the incoming bodies in for the remaining hours. This means opening the body bag, photographing the body to document the condition of the body upon arrival, and then placing ID tags on the wrists of the body before moving it into a freezer.
Although interning as a death investigator has been one of the most invaluable experiences I have ever had, it has also been emotionally taxing. The investigators are the first people from the Medical Examiner’s office to speak with the next-of-kin, which can require speaking to the family at the scene or later over the phone. Each investigator learns how to shut their emotions off while at work in order to psychologically handle the stressors of the job, which is important for both the investigator as well as the next-of-kin. This is not a skill set that you get upon training, however. Investigators are not trained as counselors. You must be a stoic individual by nature to do this kind of work. When I asked several of the investigators how they cope with the stresses of this particular line of work, each one of them said virtually the same thing, which is that you simply do not think about it. There is a job to be done and it must be done professionally without emotions getting in the way. If you are an individual who naturally tends to bring your work home with you, this is not the field for you. Patience and communication skills are also vital attributes for an investigator.
There is no such thing as a normal scene. Bexar County does take demographics of the leading causes of death in the county, which can give a person some insight into what kinds of deaths investigators deal with on a regular basis, but the investigator’s own experience may differ from what the overall demographics show. For example, according to the 2016 report on the leading causes of death in Bexar County, available here, the leading cause of death for both males and females was heart disease. This correlates well with my experience as heart disease was the likely cause of death for the majority of the scenes that I went to. On the contrary, while only two-percent of all female deaths and three-percent of all male deaths in Bexar County in 2016 were due to suicide, the second most common probable cause of death at the scenes that I went to was suicide. There is simply no way to predict what kinds of deaths will come in at what time. This drives the attitude that death investigators must have towards their work: they must be fully prepared to deal with any scene at any time.