Homicides and suicides. Fires, traffic fatalities, industrial accidents, and overdoses. Mysterious illnesses. Decomposing remains found in homes, in rivers, or in the woods. These are all typical days at work for investigators in the Hennepin County medical examiner’s office.
Investigators are the frontline workers who recover bodies, then build the medical case determining how somebody died. The job is physically and emotionally demanding.
By law, the ME’s office determines the cause and manner of any death that is sudden, unexpected, or “due entirely, or in part, to any factor other than natural disease.” It is AFSCME investigators who start that process.
“Law enforcement is in charge of the scene, but we’re in charge of the body,” says Carrie Notch, who has been with the ME’s office 13 years. No one is supposed to move a body or disturb the scene until the investigator gives the OK. Ultimately, it is the investigator who must physically remove the body – and do so in a manner as respectful as possible, she notes.
Their job is a rigorous combination of on-the-scene and behind-the-scenes work. Investigators examine the site of a death, take photos, and gather evidence. Then they do research. They review the decedent’s medical history and recent activities. They interview family, associates, medical and law enforcement personnel, and first responders. They prepare a complete report that pathologists use when conducting an autopsy.
The ME’s office is responsible for reviewing all deaths that occur outside a hospital – and even some that occur inside one. It is set up to do more sophisticated forensics work than a typical county coroner can. In 2013, the Hennepin County ME took on responsibility for cases in Dakota and Scott Counties, too. To cover the additional caseload and territory, there are now 14 full-time investigators, plus additional investigators who are part-time, intermittent, or on-call. Investigators work a variety of 8- and 12-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.
The puzzle: How somebody died
Investigators face challenges that go beyond the sometimes gruesome situations they walk into. In the field, investigators face all kinds of circumstances, not all of them safe, Notch says. They often work surrounded not only by biohazards and other safety issues, but also by emotionally charged bystanders.
“You have to be calm, keep your emotions in check,” Notch says. “It’s never easy. You get more comfortable with time. You get better at it with time. But it never gets easier.”
In deaths that are suspicious or possibly criminal, ME investigators and law enforcement work side by side. But they work with very different purposes, Notch says. The medical examiner’s office is focused exclusively on determining how the person died. It’s up to police to determine who might be responsible.
“But the cause and manner of death, based on our information, will play a role in what law enforcement will charge, if anything,” Notch says.
Still, the medical examiner’s role is to issue conclusions that are independent, unbiased, logical, and scientific. So in Hennepin County, although ME investigators and sheriff’s deputies cooperate on the scene, and although the ME’s office and the sheriff’s crime lab share the same building, they don’t share access or data.
Coping with families – and stress
The ME investigators’ job doesn’t end after they move the body back to the morgue, where they prepare it for autopsy or for release to the family. They are the ones who must officially deal with relatives.
That is rarely easy, Notch says. “Everybody grieves differently. The challenge is, you’re dealing with people who are ultimately at their worst. They just lost a loved one. Emotions are high.” In the middle of this, she says, “you have to ask difficult, personal questions – questions that are hard for families to answer.”
Even though Notch has a graduate degree in forensic science, no training prepares investigators for what they face every day, she says. The truth is, some cases “remain with you for years.”
The best investigators, she says, learn to “leave work at work. Otherwise, it will consume you. You deal with your emotions later, in whatever way you choose – exercise, family. Hopefully, they are positive choices.”
This story is adapted from the January-February 2014 edition of Council 5’s Stepping Up magazine.