Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Rant of the day

Want to know one of my biggest criminal law pet peeves? Coroners who rule deaths homicides when doing so requires knowledge or a judgment call way, way outside their expertise.

Coroners are charged with determining two things: the cause of death and the manner of death. Cause of death is the more technical "blood loss from gunshot wound" type thing. Manner of death is more about the source or culpability. There are five options for a coroner to choose from: homicide, suicide, natural, accident, and unknown.

Now, there are cases when the medical evidence supports a finding of homicide. Knife or gunshot wound to the back where the victim couldn't possibly have done it herself. A beating death. Those kinds of things. But there are an awful lot of cases where a doctor examining the body can't possibly tell if the death was caused by a person thus making it a homicide. Like a fire, for example. A coroner is clearly competent to determine that the cause of death was smoke inhalation and thermal injury. But is a coroner, a medical doctor, really qualified to declare that death a homicide? How can a coroner be allowed to rule that the fire was started by a person?

Coroners with their medical degrees should not be allowed to make judgment calls that go far outside their areas of expertise. Like declaring a dog mauling to be a homicide. To rule a death like that a homicide, the coroner has to make a judgment call about the moral and legal culpability of the parents whose child was killed by the family dog. That simply should not be the coroner's call to make. Ultimately, that is going to be a question for a jury (assuming that the father gets charged, as I expect he will).

In this scenario, declaring this death to be a homicide is not, can not, be a job for the coroner. Because if he gets to get up on the stand and testify that this is, in his medical opinion, a homicide, well that pretty well settles the question for the jury. It certainly gets them pretty far to deciding that the father is criminally liable for this tragic death. Frankly, I think it is sheer hubris for a coroner to declare a death like this a homicide. Medically speaking, you just can't say that. Suck it up and admit that the manner of death is accidental. Or at best unknown. Deciding this was a crime, though, just isn't your job.

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