Valena E. Beety,
West Virginia University
Poverty, Rurality, and Death Investigations
One percent of the population, or 2.6 million people, die each year. Approximately 1 million of these deaths are reported to the 2,342 medical examiners and/or coroner’s offices in the United States and 500,000 are accepted for further investigation and certification. Medical Examiners and coroners play a pivotal role in criminal justice and the determination of suspicious and/or unexpected deaths. Death investigations are critical to criminal proceedings, and they uniquely intersects with class and rurality.
Every death investigation begins with the victim. Whether an investigation is initiated by a medical examiner or a coroner is crucial to whether the investigation leads to a wrongful conviction, a misdiagnosis of suicide or natural death, or the identification of the true perpetrator. And yet the involvement of either a medical examiner or a coroner revolves around location, population, and poverty. As an example, this paper will examine Pennsylvania. In the Commonwealth, which is dominated by the coroner system, death investigations are performed by an elected official in each county, only two of whom have any scientific background. In its two largest metropolitan areas (Philadelphia and Pittsburgh), by contrast, death investigations are conducted by medical examiners, licensed medical professionals. This paper will examine whether Pennsylvania death investigations conducted in rural areas led by a coroner result in suspect autopsies and the involvement of prosecutors in these investigations and autopsies. Ultimately, this paper seeks to ascertain whether the death investigation system utilized during any particular investigation affects the fairness and accuracy of the ensuing prosecution.
Valena E. Beety
Director West Virginia Innocence Project
Associate Professor of Law