- For the thrash metal band see Coroner (band)
A coroner is the presiding officer of a special court to investigate deaths that occur under unusual circumstances where conventional criminal proceedings are not immediately called for.
Many jurisdictions have the office of coroner, or their equivalent (medical examiner is a frequent alternative title in the United States).
Coroners in England and Wales
A coroner is a judicial officer appointed by the Home Secretary, but paid by the local authority. To become a Coroner in England and Wales the applicant must be a lawyer or doctor of at least 5 years standing. This reflects the role of a Coroner, to determine the cause of death of a deceased in cases where the death was sudden, unexpected, occurred abroad, was suspicious in any way or happened while the person was under the control of central authority (e.g. in police cells).
Aside from the usual coroners, certain persons are ex officio coroners in limited circumstances - for example the Lord Chancellor has been historically allowed to certify the death of someone killed in rebellion.
The Coroner will decide whether to hold an Inquest. If he decides to, the most common verdicts which he may return include: death by misadventure, accidental death, unlawful killing, lawful killing, suicide, natural causes and an 'open verdict'.
In law, death by misadventure and accidental death are identical. Since there is no longer the death penalty in the UK for any offence (until 1999 it remained for 'high treason', 'setting fire to the Queen's docks in time of war' and 'piracy on the high seas', and certain Martial law offenses) lawful killing is rarely applicable, but can be given where, for example, the police firearms unit has shot someone.
Where any person is aware of a body lying in the district of a coroner, they have a duty to report it to the coroner. Failing to do so is an offence. Aside from the obvious, this can include bodies brought into the UK (for example, when Diana, Princess of Wales died in France her body was returned to the UK and dealt with by a coroner in the UK). The coroner has an assistant (usually an ex-policeman) who will carry out the investigation on his behalf and on the basis of that the coroner will decide whether an inquest is appropriate. Where a person has died in the control of central authority (in police cells, or in prison) an inquest must be held. In England, inquests are heard without a jury, unless the coroner wants one. However, cases in which a person has died under the control of central authority must have juries, as a check on abuse of governmental power.
The coroner's court is a court of law, and accordingly the coroner may summon witnesses, and people found to be lying are guilty of perjury.
Coroners also had a role in Treasure Trove cases, although this is no longer the case following the Treasure Act 1996. Their role (in what would appear to be totally unrelated to dead people) arose from the ancient duty of the coroner as a protector of the property of The Crown.
The post of coroner is ancient—dating from around the 11th Century, shortly after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. However, in its current form it dates from the 19th Century, and due to widespread dissatisfaction with the legal framework under which they operate, it looks likely that they will be reformed again in the coming years.
Coroners in the United States
Coroners in the United States are often elected officials. As finders of fact, they retain quasi-judicial powers like the power of subpoena, and in some states they also have the power to impanel juries of inquest, but unlike their British equivalents, they are not judicial officers. They are traditionally considered to be executive branch officials. Furthermore, American coroners are almost always officials of the state government or of the local county government. The federal government usually does not clean up dead bodies (with the obvious exception being people who die while serving in the armed forces).
Some jurisdictions have replaced the elected Coroner with a Medical Examiner, who must be a physician.
Duties always include determining the time, cause, and manner of death. This uses the same investigatory skills of a police detective in most cases, because the answers are available from the circumstances, scene, and recent medical records.
Only a small percentage of deaths require an autopsy to determine the time, cause and manner of death.
In some states, additional functions are handled by the Coroner. For example, in Louisiana, Coroners are involved in determination of mental illness of living persons. In Georgia, the coroner has the same powers as a county sheriff to execute arrest warrants and serve civil process.
Although coroners are often depicted in police dramas as a source of information for detectives, there are a number of fictional coroners who are a focus of particular focus on television. The television series Wojeck, Quincy, M.E. Da Vinci's Inquest, and Crossing Jordan each have a coroner as their title character. In addition, the coroner is a significant character on CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.
Dr. G: Medical Examiner is a reality television show shown on the Discovery Health Channel that shows dramatic reenactments of autospies that Dr. Jan Garavaglia has done. The shows also include interviews with Dr. Garavaglia, family members, and others connected with the cases she has worked on in Florida and Texas.