Quincy with a Glock

The history of death examination is rich, dramatic and troubled.

It began with the death of Julius Caesar when the physician Antistheus took a look at the brutal stab wounds and then reported back to the senators in the forum about the unnatural cause of death. This scene was history-making and led to many a dramatic interpretation. Unlike many jurisdictions in this country today, at least a doctor was in charge.

In the 1100s when the King of England virtually owned his subjects, there was a proscription against suicide and the punishment was no last rites, and worse yet, no inheritance was passed down. That money was given over to the king by the death investigators or “crowners,” as they were called. Historians note that through the centuries the job became nepotistic and corrupt. The name crowners evolved to coroners, but some aspects have not evolved.

In many respects, the coroner system is inherited from the colonial days in this country. In some locales, a coroner need only be 18 years old and electable. Coroners untrained in medicine are in charge of examining questionable deaths and are more closely affiliated with law enforcement rather than medicine. Here in Sacramento politicians appoint the coroner and the person need not be a doctor. Indeed, here the current person in charge is more a cop than a trained forensic pathologist (see “Dead Wrong,”) and some of his hiring decisions are questionable.

In most metropolitan areas the size of Sacramento, the people in charge have decided to go to a medical-examiner system, one in which a doctor runs the department. It may be time to closely examine the office and give history the boot.