Death is the cessation of all biological functions. Despite this tidy definition, determining when and how a person died is challenging and problematic. A death certificate in the ordinary course of business is issued at a hospital. The circumstances of the death, in certain cases, are then investigated by a coroner or medical examiner. Although it brings no change to those bereft of life, to those left behind an autopsy by a coroner can provide closure. From body bag to burial, the autopsy is a procedure shrouded in mystery. I recently sat down with Portage County Coroner, Scott Rifleman, to explore the many responsibilities of the Coroner.
The interview took place in Rifleman’s office, which is no larger than a storage closet. This is evidence that much of his work takes place outside of his office. The conversation began with Rifleman reflecting on his path to the Coroner’s office. In 1980, the Portage County Coroner resigned abruptly in the middle of his term. Lee Sherman Dreyfus, then governor, appointed Rifleman to the coroner post. However, generally the coroner is an elected position. Rifleman adds that to become a coroner “all you need is one more vote than the other guy.”
Unlike many of the coroners who came before, Rifleman had relevant background experience based on his work as an Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) and firefighter. He notes that there is a trend toward electing more well-qualified coroners. In part, he states, due to Crime Scene Investigation programs such as C.S.I on television. Rifleman was also asked to clarify the difference between a medical examiner and coroner. He acknowledges that there is sometimes confusion between the two, commenting that the only difference is that medical examiners are appointed and coroners are elected. At this point in the interview, Rifleman pulls out a map of Wisconsin that identifies every coroner or medical examiner. Notably, only four counties have licensed medical doctors, who are trained and board certified in forensic pathology, as the medical examiner. This leads to an interesting dichotomy. The rest of the counties provide roughly an even split between medical examiners and coroners. While board certified forensic pathologists are contracted for certain medicolegal issues, such as autopsies, Rifleman states that a general practitioner may not totally fit the need of a coroner. Meaning that, coroners like Rifleman have both medical and legal training. Rifleman, along with the deputy coroners in his office, are board certified by the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators. To understand the role of coroner, a look into a typical investigation is illustrative.
A good starting place is the Portage County Coroner’s Office mission statement, which outlines duties to “include responding to and investigating the scene of death, ordering postmortem examinations, certifying the cause and manner of death, and providing information and assistance to families.” (www.co.portage.wi.us/coroner/)
Under current law, mandatory investigation is triggered if a death occurs under any of the following circumstances: 1) an unexplained, unusual, or suspicious death; 2) homicides; 3) suicides; 4) deaths following an abortion; 5) all deaths due to poisoning; 6) deaths following an accident; and 7) various situations where a physician is unavailable to sign a death certificate. (Wis. Stat. § 979.01(1)(a)-(i).)