Sometimes medical examiners have to decide whether it’s worth it to do everything they can.
Families may think no stone should be left unturned in the effort to identify a body or determine a cause of death, but a full-bore investigation of every case isn’t feasible. No medical examiner’s budget will cover every conceivable procedure or test in every case. Neither bean counters nor taxpayers would stand for it.
But choose fiscal prudence and you risk having to explain why you didn’t do something that might have helped a grieving family. To paraphrase my mentor, it’s easier to explain why you did something than why you didn’t.
Some choices are difficult, as in this case:
A woman walking along the shore of a 10,000-square-mile lake found a small piece of flat bone. She showed it to an anthropology student, who said it was part of a human skull.
The police had a more thorough examination conducted, and the bone was found to have been in the water for decades – maybe 50 years.
The only conceivable way to determine the identity of the skull is to extract and analyze DNA. The test can run around $2,000, and that’s not the end of it. You have to have some idea of who the dead person might be in order to determine who to test for a possible match.
Once you have a possible victim, you have to analyze the DNA of a close relative. If you don’t get a match, you have to test another relative of another possible victim till someone matches or you break the bank.
Police investigators found that a boat had gone down in the lake around 50 years ago. Six bodies were recovered; two were not. As the source of the skull bone, those two victims are contenders.
But given a time-of-death determination measured in decades, the range of uncertainty is also measured in decades. So any unrecovered person who drowned in the lake, whose body was disposed of in the lake or who was washed into the lake from a tributary river over a period of 20 or 30 years is also a contender.
And the relatives of any person who “disappeared” on the North American continent during the last 50 years will think their loved one is a contender if they find out about this bone.
The medical examiner has several choices, in order of cost:
Don’t do any analysis. Prepare a case file on “unidentified remains” with an “undetermined” cause and manner of death. Don’t say anything to anybody, especially the media. Maybe they won’t find out.Have the bone analyzed. Ask the police to locate relatives of the two people who weren’t recovered after the boating accident. Tell them that if they want to be tested at their own expense, you’ll provide the bone analysis for comparison. Ditto the above, but pay for the analysis of a member of each of the two families. If neither matches, refuse to do further testing. Prepare to be flayed in the media when families of other missing people come forward, which they will.Put out a press release about the bone. Ask any family with a missing person to contact your office to arrange for testing at county expense. Be sure to have the written approval of the board of county commissioners and the county attorney first.Whatever you choose, update your curriculum vitae and start reading the want ads in professional journals.
Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003-12. She now lives in Florida and Maryland. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.