What’s in a Coroner’s Report?

If you are like nearly every adult in the United States, and nearly every young person over a certain age, you’ve heard the term “coroner’s report” as well as “autopsy report” with some regularity. You hear these terms on television programs, in films, and in media reports. Although you have contact with these terms with regularity if you are like most people you don’t necessarily know what these reports are all about. For example, you may wonder what’s contained in a coroner’s report.

Correcting a Common Mistake: A Coroner’s Report and an Autopsy Report Are Not the Same Thing

Even people that should know better, including law enforcement officials, make the mistake of thinking the terms “coroner’s report” and “autopsy report” are synonymous. They are not. In simple terms, an autopsy report is part of a coroner’s report. Noting this distinction, there are instances in which the only component of a coroner’s report may be an autopsy report. This is discussed in greater detail in a moment.

Definition of an Autopsy Report

An autopsy report is a document created by a medical examiner or country coroner which details the results of a post-mortem examination (or autopsy). An autopsy report is a multifaceted document.

Included in an autopsy report is a detailed description of the remains at the time the autopsy commenced. In addition, information about the chain of custody is also set forth at the beginning of an autopsy report. This is information about who, when, and how the remains were transported from the scene of death to the coroner’s office.

The autopsy report details the specific aspects of the post-mortem itself. In other words, an autopsy report provides comprehensive information about each step the medical examiner took during the post-mortem itself.

For example, an autopsy report explains what organs were examined during the procedure and how that examination was undertaken. The report delineates specific data obtained from the examination (including the possible dissection) of different organs and other components of the cadaver.

In addition to thoroughly recounting the course of the post-mortem, the autopsy included an analysis by the medical examiner. If possible, an autopsy report concludes with the cause and manner of death.  These are also terms of art that commonly are thought to be synonymous. They are not.

Cause of death is a specific disease or injury that lead to a person’s death. Manner of death is a determination of how the identified injury or disease resulted in death.

By way of example, consider a knife wound. An autopsy report might conclude that the knife would be the cause of death. This leaves the door open to a determination of the manner of death, the “how” of the cause of death. Was the knife wound that resulted in death the result of:

  • Accident
  • Suicide
  • Homicide

In many cases, the autopsy report will contain a final determination of the cause and manner of death. In some cases, this is not possible and further forensic investigation must occur. More often than not this additional forensic investigation is in the form of lab testing of blood, other bodily fluids, and tissue. The autopsy report will make note of what types of additional testing and forensic investigation is required.

The autopsy report generally is completed regardless of whether an additional forensic investigation is necessary. As is discussed in a moment, the results of such testing become a part of the broader coroner’s report.

Definition of a Coroner’s Report

As mentioned previously, a coroner’s report is a comprehensive document that contains the results of all aspects a forensic investigation associated with a person’s death. The report is prepared by a medical examiner or county coroner and made available to next of kin and law enforcement personnel as well (if a crime is the suspected manner of death).

Elements of a Coroner’s Report

A comprehensive coroner’s report can fairly be divided into three primary “sections.”  These are:

  • Death scene investigation
  • Autopsy
  • Other forensic investigation, including laboratory tests

When a person dies under uncertain circumstances, the county coroner is called to the scene. A prime example is an unattended death (also known as an undiscovered death). An unattended death is one in which a person dies with no witness at the scene. Moreover, the remains of the deceased person may not be discovered for days, weeks, or even longer.

In a case in which a coroner is called to the death scene, the medical examiner’s team performs a forensic investigation or examination at that location. The fact is that conducting a forensic investigation or examination at the scene very well may yield evidence about the manner of death. Using the death caused by knife example mentioned previously, blood splatter at the scene may aid in ascertaining if the manner of death was an accident, suicide, or homicide. The findings of the investigatory efforts at the scene will be included in the comprehensive coroner’s report.

An autopsy has been discussed in detail. This discussion included how the autopsy report is incorporated into the comprehensive coroner’s report.

Finally, as mentioned previously, there are cases in which additional forensic investigation and examination after an autopsy are required. This oftentimes takes the form of laboratory testing. The results of these lab tests or other forensic endeavors are incorporated into a comprehensive coroner’s report.

Previously, it was noted that situations do exist when the only element of a coroner’s report is an autopsy report. Indeed, this type of scenario happens with considerable regularity.

An example of such a situation may involve a person who died in a hospital setting. There may be some question about the cause of death that draws the coroner into the process for some reason. In this type of case, the coroner is not at all likely to be called to the scene of the death (unless criminality was thought to be involved). Thus, the coroner’s report would not include a section dealing with the death scene.

If the cause and manner of death as readily ascertained during an autopsy, no need would exist for further forensic investigation or examination. No lab tests would be needed, for example. Thus, in the end, the coroner’s report would only consist of the report generated as the result of an autopsy itself.

Hopefully, the day never comes when you must review a coroner’s report. If a situation does occur necessitating reading such a document, you’re best served to understand the contents of a coroner’s report.