Discovery Guides Areas


The Medicolegal Death Investigator
An Evolution in Crime Scene Investigations Relating to Unexpected Deaths

(Released October 2008)

  by Emil Moldovan  


Key Citations

Visual Resources

News Articles



Medicolegal death investigation has evolved from the archaic "English Coroner system" to a highly scientific and technical forensic field of study. (Hanzlick, 1998) The field encompasses other scientific disciplines including Anthropology, Entomology, Odontology, Botany and others that, combined with law enforcement, examine death circumstances to determine whether or not a criminal act occurred, and to establish the manner and cause of death.

police line tape

Today, the medicolegal death investigator is a professional who responds to some of the most horrific death scenes imaginable. The men and women who enter this forensic profession must possess strength in body, character and ethics in order to perform this important service. They enter crime and accident scenes dealing with death on a daily basis. They encounter all aspects of diseases, body fluids, drugs and weapons that may have potential harmful effects on them, simply from their presence. They enter homes ranging from dirty, pack-rat conditions, to executive mansions of the rich and famous. They deal with emotionally charged conditions involving the death of children, parents, wives and husbands, and always maintain a professional attitude regardless of the circumstances. They collect and handle property involving expensive jewelry, cash, and other valuables that they must protect and return to the decedent's next of kin. They must be capable of examining decomposed and mangled bodies as well as reading and interpreting important medical records to help determine the manner and causes of death. They must coordinate their investigative efforts with other law enforcement agencies, medical staffs, fire department and rescue personnel, and at the same time, protect the interest of the deceased person, whom they represent in death.

Medicolegal death investigators present a specialized ingredient to the crime scene investigation. Through training and experience, combined with fortitude in character and mental well-being, the medicolegal death investigator contributes to the investigative process in a unique manner. They must possess a highly motivated desire to help families of decedents at a time when the need for the most gentle yet professional demeanor, is demanded of them. They must interact with highly trained medical doctors, a multitude of law enforcement personnel, sometimes angry and confused family members and the bureaucracy of public service to achieve one of the most difficult and important aspects of the criminal justice system.

© 2008, ProQuest LLC. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated all photos are by Emil Moldovan


  1. Adams, V. I. (2002). Medicolegal Autopsies and Autopsy Toxicology. In J. Ludwig, & V. I. Adams (Ed.), Handbook of Autopsy Practice (3 ed., p. 7). Totowa, New Jersey: Humana Press.

  2. Bureau of Justice Statistics. (2004). Medical Examiners and Coroners' Offices, 2004. Bureau of Justice Statistics. Washington, D.C.: Department of Justice.

  3. California Government Code 27472a downloaded September, 2008

  4. California Government Code Sec. 27491 downloaded September, 2008

  5. California Penal Code Sec. 830.35.c downloaded September, 2008

  6. Clark, S. C., Ernst, M. F., Haglund, W. D., & Jentzen, J. M. (1996). Medicolegal Death Investigator: A Systematic Training Program for the Professional Death Investigator. Big Rapids, MI: Occupational Research and Assessment, Inc.

  7. Committee for the Workshop on the Medicolegal Death Investigation System. Board on Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. (2003). Medicolegal Death Investigation System. Retrieved May 22, 2008, from National Academy Press:

  8. Di Maio, V. (2003). Medicolegal Death Investigation System: Workshop Summary. Department of Justice, National Institute of Justice. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies.

  9. Dyer, C. (2003). Upgrading Coroners' Investigators Training in Death Investigation. British Medical Journal, 327, 123.

  10. Ernst, M. F. (2003). Medicolegal Death Investigation System: Workshop Summary. National Institute of Justice, Department of Justice. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies.

  11. Haglund, W. D., & Ernst, M. F. (1997). The Lay Death Investigator: In Search of a Common Ground. The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 18 (1), 21-25.

  12. Hanzlick, R. (1998). Medical Examiner and Coroners Systems: History and Trends. JAMA, 279 (11), 870-874.

  13. Hanzlick, R. (1996). On the Need for More Expertise in Death Investigation and a National Office. Archives of Pathology & Laboratory Medicine , 120 (4), 329-332.

  14. Hanzlick, Randy, M.D. (2003). Overview of the Medicolegal Death Investigation System in the United States. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.

  15. Hanzlick, R. (2007). The Conversion of Coroner Systems to Medical Examiner Systems in the United States: A Lull in the Action. American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, 28 (4), 279-283.

  16. Hanzlick, R., Combs, D., Parrish, R. G., & Ing, R. T. (1993). Death Investigation in the United States, 1990: A Survey of Statutes, Systems, and Educational Requirements. The Journal of Forensic Sciences, 38, 628-632.

  17. Hickman, Matthew J; Hughes, Kristen A.; Strom, Kevin J.; Ropero-Miller, Jeri D. (2004). Medical Examiners and Coroners' Offices, 2004. Washington: U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs.

  18. Howe, J. (2008, June 20th). Executive Director, ABMDI. (E. Moldovan, Interviewer)

  19. Humphry, D. (1991). Final Exit The Practicalities of Self-Deliverance and Assisted Suicide for the Dying. Eugene, Oregon: The Hemlock Society.

  20. Knight, B. (2004, November 12). Britannia History. Retrieved 2004, from

  21. Kubler-Ross, E. (1969). On Death and Dying. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc.

  22. Leash, R. M. (1994). Death Notification: A Practical Guide to the Process. Arkansas City, Kansas: Gilland Printing.

  23. National Guidelines for Death Investigation. (1999). National Guidelines for Death Investigation. Washington, D.C.: Department of Justice.

  24. Smith, J. (2007). The first paper. Journal of Criminal Justice , 35 (4), 12-25.

  25. Spitz, W. U. (2006). Medicolegal Investigation of Death: Guidelines for the Application of Pathology to Crime Investigation (4th Ed) (4th Edition ed.). Springfield, Il: Charles C. Thomas.

  26. Stanczak, M. (2008). From Building Design to Prime Time: Forensic Engineering. Washington, D.C.: ProQuest.

  27. U.S. Department of Justice: A Guide for the Scene Investigator. (1999). Every Scene, Every Time. Washington: U.S. Department of Justice Office of Justice Programs.

  28. U.S. Department of Justice. (1999). Death Investigation: Guide for the Scene Investigator. Washington, D.C.: US Department of Justice.

  29. Voelker, R. (1995). More Expertise Needed in Death Investigations. JAMA , 273 (15), 1164-1165.