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When you write crime thrillers, there’s bound to be murder!

Laurie Buchanan is the author of the Sean McPherson crime thriller novels set in Bellingham, Washington. You can find out more about her on her website at lauriebuchanan.com, or by clicking here, read her last post here, and buy her books here.

My job as a crime thriller writer is to deliver intellectually and emotionally stimulating novels that keeps the space between the pages and the reader emotionally taut. One of the ways I accomplish this is to write with authenticity.

I appreciate the myriad of professional sources who continue to inform my knowledge base. I’ve had the opportunity to consult with crime lab technicians, SWAT Team members, a public defender, a firearms expert, a self-defense instructor, a security advisor, a U.S. Marshal, a homicide detective, a policewoman, a private investigator, a DNA specialist, a forensic pathologist and psychologist, a trauma surgeon, a priest, and an attorney.

Two of my most interesting consults were with a coroner and a medical examiner. Many people use the terms interchangeably, but they’re different. When a person dies under suspicious or unnatural circumstances, their death needs to be investigated by a qualified prof essional. In the U.S. there are two types of officials who can perform this task: coroners and medical examiners. But what’s the difference and why does it matter?

A coroner is an elected official who’s responsible for investigating deaths that fall under their jurisdiction. They may or may not have a medical degree or any formal training in forensic pathology. They:

  • Authorize autopsies performed by contracted forensic pathologists.
  • Notify the deceased’s next of kin.
  • Issue death certificates and other legal documents.
  • Testify in court.
  • Preserve evidence and personal effects.
  • Collaborate with law enforcement, public health, and other agencies.

  • A medical examiner is an appointed physician who is board-certified in forensic pathology. They have specialized training and expertise in examining dead bodies and determining the cause and manner of death. They:
  • Perform autopsies and conduct microscopic, toxicological, and other tests.
  • Identify the deceased and notifying their next of kin.
  • Determine the cause and manner of death (natural, accidental, suicide, homicide, or undetermined).
  • Issue death certificates and other legal documents.
  • Testify in court and providing expert opinions.
  • Collect and preserve evidence and personal effects.
  • Collaborate with law enforcement, public health, and other agencies.

Why Does It Matter?

The difference between coroners and medical examiners may seem trivial, but it can have significant implications for the quality and accuracy of death investigations. Some of the potential issues that may arise are:

  • Lack of standardization and consistency across states and counties.
  • Lack of oversight and accountability for elected coroners.
  • Lack of resources and funding for death investigation systems.
  • Lack of qualified and trained personnel to handle complex cases.
  • Lack of transparency and public trust in the process and outcomes.

These issues can affect the administration of justice, the protection of public health, and the respect for human dignity. Therefore, it’s important to understand the roles and responsibilities of coroners and medical examiners, and to advocate for improvements and reforms in the field of death investigation.

On a Personal Note

I live in Idaho, which has a county-based system of coroners (elected officials). Some do, some don’t have medical degrees and formal training in forensic pathology. When I visited the Ada County Coroner’s Office and morgue, I spoke with the coroner about the administrative side of things. Then I talked to one of the contract forensic pathologists about autopsies.

The Sean McPherson crime thriller novels are set in Bellingham, Washington, in Whatcom County. I travel there often for research and on one of those trips, spoke with the Whatcom County Medical Examiner.

The next time you watch a crime show or read a mystery novel, pay attention to who’s examining the body. Is it a coroner or a medical examiner? Because sometimes, the difference between the two can be a matter of a good plot twist.

Laurie Buchanan

Laurie Buchanan is the author of Note to Self: A Seven-Step Path to Gratitude and Growth, and The Business of Being: Soul Purpose In and Out of the Workplace. You can find out more about her on her website, lauriebuchanan.com, or follow her on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.

This Post Has 14 Comments

  1. Carl Vonderau
    Carl Vonderau

    Thanks for helping me to understand that difference. This ice good information.

  2. Sherrill Joseph
    Sherrill Joseph

    Laurie, this post is as chilling as your books! Thanks for the information.

  3. GP Gottlieb
    GP Gottlieb

    I’d guess the two fields have been wrongly conflated by some authors, but no one in the Blackbirds is going to make that mistake!

    1. Laurie Buchanan
      Laurie Buchanan

      Galit — We belong to such a terrific group of writers. I haven’t met a Blackbird Writer who doesn’t do their homework before sitting down to work.

  4. Avatar
    saralynrichard

    I think the confusion comes in because the roles played by the coroner and medical examiner are so similar. Thanks for the clear explanation. I’ll be on the lookout for the plot twist!

  5. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    Saralyn — You’re right. The roles are SO similar that many people use the terms interchangeably, hence the confusion.

  6. Avatar
    Avanti Centrae

    Thanks for the enlightening post, Laurie. I agree that researching novels is great fun!

  7. Avatar
    Laurie

    Thanks, Laurie, for that educational post. One of things I like best about your books is the attention to police procedural aspects. Another win for Sean McPhereson!

  8. Valerie Biel
    Valerie Biel

    That was a great tutorial — I really didn’t know the difference! But it’s so true how these details matter to crafting a great read!! Thank you!

  9. Laurie Buchanan
    Laurie Buchanan

    Thank you for stopping by, Valerie. Glad to share the difference.

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