History of the Office of the Coroner

The Coroner in Ohio

An ordinance of Northwest Territory in 1788 provided for the appointment of a coroner for each county to serve a term of two years. Such appointment was to be made by the Governor. The duties of the coroner included holding inquests over the bodies of all persons found within the county who were believed to have died by criminal violence or causality. He was also to have the same power as a sheriff.

The Constitution of the State of Ohio enacted in 1802 provided that a coroner should be elected in each county to serve for a term of two years. A statute enacted in 1805 stated the duties and authority of the coroner and provided for remuneration on a fee basis. In 1831 state legislation directed the coroner to return a report of his findings in an inquest to the clerk of Courts of Common Pleas. (Reports of such cases dated from 1910 are at the Butler County Coroner's Office.)

Constitutional changes of 1851 and 1912 did not affect the office of the coroner. It was not until 1921 that the coroner was empowered to perform autopsies and then only upon authorization by the county prosecutor. In the same act, the coroner was granted discretionary power toward holding formal inquests, and he was directed to investigate deaths supposed to have been caused by unlawful or suspicious means. In the same year, a bill was enacted requiring that in counties with a population of a hundred thousand or more, no person should be eligible for election to the office of coroner except a physician of good standing in his profession.

In 1973, the same qualifications for eligibility were established for coroner in all Ohio counties. In 1936, the term of office was increased to four years. In 1945, by act of legislature, the statutes governing the office of coroner were revised to the extent that the Ohio law in this respect is now an example for providing modern medicolegal investigation in a democracy. Some of these revisions include: specific definitions of duties and authority; remuneration by salary rather than fees for all coroners; authorizing a plan whereby coroners in counties without established pathological service may obtain same from counties with such facilities at a fee commensurate with the actual cost of time and materials used.

The Coroner and Medicolegal Investigation

The Coroner is charged by law with the responsibility of determining the cause and manner of death. The determination of the anatomic cause of death is a medical aspect while the legal interest is all-inclusive and requires that all factors of causation, the mode and manner. Therefore equal consideration must be given to the medical and legal phases of investigation. This requires a specialized discipline correlating knowledge of law and medicine in a medicolegal investigation.

As an illustration, consider a medical examination performed merely to determine the anatomic cause of death. In such a case it would be sufficient to establish that a penetrating wound in the heart was the immediate cause of death. However, to determine the mode of death it would be necessary to establish whether a bullet or a sharp instrument caused that wound. A thorough autopsy for medicolegal purposes would reveal evidence to make this determination. The next question of legal importance is the manner of death; in other words, how was this wound inflicted or sustained? Was it self-inflicted? If so, was it intentional-that is to say, suicide- or was it accidental? If inflicted by anther person, was it accidental or was it homicide? Investigation of the scene where the injury was sustained, examination of the evidence found there and statements of witnesses would furnish information as to the circumstances of the incident. Examination of the clothing of the victim as well as thorough study of the body would yield evidence, which could be used to test the reliability of the conclusions based on investigation of the scene and interrogation of witnesses.

The above illustration is a general example of one type of case where investigations must be correlated in order to arrive at a just decision. In other instances, it may be necessary to acquire information from an attending physician, hospital records, and those acquainted with the decedent. The police, other investigative agencies, and the coroner must work in close cooperation with one another. 

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