A Medical Examiner (ME) is a doctor who examines the bodies of people who have died suspiciously or violently to determine how and why they died. Though the exact training and licensure requirements for someone in this position vary by jurisdiction, many places require MEs to have experience in pathology, an understanding of law, and licensure from a local board. The responsibilities, work system, and training of an ME are different from those of a coroner, though people often mix the two positions up.
The Role of a Medical Examiner
Many MEs are trained forensic pathologists, which means that they study people's tissues, organs, body fluids, and cells to determine how or why they died. Even if the cause seems obvious, such as a bullet wound to the head, they still need to evaluate all the data before determining the cause of death. When possible, the ME will be called to the crime scene to investigate the body before it is moved. Seeing the body in context with the crime allows him or her to notice details that may be missed in a lab. In cases of violent crimes that haven't ended in death, a medical examiner may assist in rape examinations, analyses of blood, analyses of DNA evidence, and examinations of a person to document injuries.
In addition to performing or overseeing the examination of the body, a medical examiner may be called to testify as to his or her findings in court. This includes testifying as to the cause of death or injury, establishing DNA evidence, or refuting the testimony of another expert. In addition to their legal duties, MEs also help compile reports about trends in deaths or crime that they draw from their examinations. These are used in both local and national medical and demographics studies.
Qualifications to become a medical examiner vary, with the level of specialization and training depending on the jurisdiction. Most places require at least a medical degree, with some requiring a background specifically in pathology. In other places, any medical degree, from dermatology to obstetrics, is accepted. In some places, a person might need training from a law school to become an ME, but many MEs take law-related classes even if they're not required for licensing so that they will be better at their jobs. During their education, prospective MEs typically shadow a working examiner to get an understanding of the job, and then start working on their own in a hospital or clinic after they graduate and pass any necessary licensing exams.
Compared to a Coroner
MEs and coroners usually differ in terms of how they're employed, their training, and their main responsibilities. An ME is almost always appointed, but a coroner is usually elected, and may not have any medical training at all. Some areas have a system in which one ME oversees a network of doctors who volunteer their time for autopsies and examinations, but there is not a comparable system for coroners. Unlike an ME, a coroner is usually able to convene a court to determine the cause of a person's death, may be able to hold people in contempt of court, and can often arrest those they suspect of murder. In cases with a combined coroner-ME system, the coroner will often call on a ME to examine bodies and testify as to his or her findings.