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Medical examiners are doctors who work with dead bodies to uncover evidence, evaluate the cause of death and check for other health information, such as the nature of a virus that killed the patient. Like all doctors, they must attend medical school, and then must complete a medical examining residency. Every day as a medical examiner is slightly different, and life can change quite a bit depending on where a medical examiner lives, how common crime is in the area and how frequently she conducts autopsies.
A medical examiner's job begins with preserving crime scene evidence. This means properly refrigerating bodies and wearing protective gear that prevents contamination during autopsies and other evidence evaluations. Medical examiners may also be charged with collecting evidence -- such as hair samples, fingerprints or nail clippings -- directly from a crime scene, then transporting that evidence to a crime lab. In most cases, medical examiners must also maintain an inventory of each item they store.
Conducting Medical Examinations
After a medical examiner has gathered evidence, her primary duty is to conduct autopsies. An autopsy begins with a visual inspection, then proceeds to an examination of each organ and area of the body. An autopsy can take anywhere from an hour or two for uncomplicated cases to several days, where the cause of death is unclear or identifying the specific source of an injury is important. During an autopsy, medical examiners may recover evidence, such as bullet casings or knife parts, and must store and log this evidence.
Medical examiners begin writing their reports even before they begin an autopsy, by outlining the evidence they've received and giving details of a visual inspection of the body. During and after an autopsy, though, examiners must make detailed reports of each and every finding, in addition to providing analysis. For example, a medical examiner might note that a bullet casing was found in the body, then add that this data is irrelevant to the cause of death, since the victim was known to have a bullet from a previous shooting lodged in his body.
A medical examiner's report is a key piece of evidence if a person's death gives rise to a criminal prosecution or civil lawsuit. Consequently, medical examiners must regularly provide testimony on their reports, by offering details as well as fielding cross-examination questions that aim to invalidate the report. Testimony at a high-profile or complex trial can easily eat up an entire day or longer, but in other cases, testimony may take just a few minutes, allowing the medical examiner to go about her other duties for the rest of the day.
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.