I thought it would be interesting to hear from someone who works in the industry of forensics. Some of you may wish to write characters for your novel who are coroners or medical examiners. Brandon’s insights are very valuable. I hope you enjoy his post!
Is The Stuff on Crime TV True?
I am a forensic scientist for the chief medical examiner of the State of Utah. When people discover what I do for a living they generally ask me one of following questions: (A) How did you get into this line of work? (B) How real is the stuff on TV? (C) Which [crime television] character are you most like?
This article will offer insight into the world of forensic science and supply answers to the questions mentioned above. The goal of this piece is to offer a basis for writing accurate morgue scenes and developing authentic characters.
Forensic science incorporates medicine and law. The State of Utah employs various forensic scientists, many of which work at the Office of the Medical Examiner (OME) operating under the Bureau of Disease Control and Prevention of the Department of Health. There are four distinct operations within the OME, namely forensic pathology, morgue operations, death investigations, and business administration. I am the program manager over morgue operations.
To give you an idea of how the system works, Utah operates under a statewide medical examiner system. This means that all suspicious deaths that occur throughout the state are investigated by a single central office located in Salt Lake City. States such as Idaho and Colorado have a county coroner system in which each county is responsible for investigating deaths in its own jurisdiction. Other states such as New York and California use a mix of the two systems.
What is the difference between a medical examiner and a coroner? A medical examiner is a medical doctor trained in forensic pathology. A coroner can be anyone who gets elected into the position-not necessarily a doctor. A coroner will recruit a doctor to perform post-mortem examinations when necessary.
How do states choose one system over the other? It boils down to resources versus need. A rural community with very few suspicious deaths per year, for example, will elect a county coroner to certify death certificates, whereas a crime ridden metropolis will want a medical examiner system with a board certified forensic pathologist to investigate and certify their numerous suspicious deaths–including homicides.
With the exception of what I like to call mood lighting and time warp, the reality of television programs that depict forensic scientists in various settings is not far from the truth. I’ll explain my issues with lighting and timing later in the article. Crime TV bases its story plots on true, high profile, homicide cases, which makes for good TV, but those cases occur only a few times a year in the whole country.
Coroners and medical examiners work with such highly sensitive and disturbing scenarios on a daily basis that they use various tactics to protect themselves. Some create a façade that appears callous and cynical in order to mask emotion while others use humor as a coping mechanism.
A forensic scientist’s humor is morbid and macabre, but humor, regardless of what it’s called, is healthy for dealing with intense subject matter. For more information on coping mechanisms please follow the link below.
Solving the mystery surrounding a death, diagnosing the cause of death, and properly processing the disturbing images associated with death all require a lot of brain power—mind-over-matter. As a program manager I’ve had to deal with brain power failure due to an overload of mind-over-matter situations. For example, after a full morning of autopsies I’ve witnessed two employees shouting face-to-face due to a misunderstanding in one moment and in the very next breath the same two employees calmly discussing where they were going to eat lunch. I’ve discovered that along with humor the next best coping mechanism revolves around food—breakfast bagels to start the morning, maintaining a full candy jar, the occasional birthday lunch date all help employees cope with the psychological, emotional, and physical stress of a day’s caseload.
(A)’How did I get into this line of work?’ I did not become a morgue manager by design. I was studying biology at the University of Utah in preparation for medical school and needed a part-time job. A friend who happened to be a medical student making his rounds through the OME heard about an opening and referred me. I quickly applied and was initially hired to work part-time as a morgue clerk–that meant I worked evenings and weekends managing the delivery and release of bodies to and from the OME.
Two years later I accepted a position in the front office where I managed files, transcribed autopsy reports, and performed other ancillary office tasks. Not long after, I accepted the position of Supervising Medical Examiner Assistant making me responsible for morgue operations and program manager over four morgue clerks, two autopsy technicians, and seven forensic specialists called Medical Examiner Assistants.
Whether referring to a death investigator who goes to the scene or forensic pathologist and autopsy technician who work on the body at the morgue, this type of work requires a compassionate human being. Taking into account the myriad of TV characters portrayed in various crime solving programs over the years it might be difficult to envision a compassionate person beneath the crude, cynical, morbid persona, but that’s just the facade of a deeply caring somewhat obsessive compulsive forensic scientist—including coroners, medical examiners, death investigators, and autopsy technicians alike.
(B) ’How accurate is the stuff on TV?’ TV is somewhat accurate aside from “mood lighting” and “time warp.” The equipment albeit realistic and very cool is not always available to a medical examiner on a state government’s budget. The one piece of equipment that is available and plentiful is light and this point is where TV and reality differ greatly. A single spotlight illuminating a pale, cyanotic corpse in a darkened room as depicted on TV is unrealistic from a forensic viewpoint. While the dark room and solitary light maintains mystery and intrigue for television audiences, it is not helpful to a forensic scientist. A post-mortem exam requires a lot of light in order to properly identify and locate essential information.
Time frame is also exaggerated in order to make TV entertaining and satisfying. In reality it takes much, much longer to obtain toxicology reports and DNA information. For example, in Utah it takes 3 to 6 weeks to run toxicology tests on blood and urine and up to a year before DNA results are returned. The right equipment and an unlimited budget could lessene time frames to hours or days, but certainly not minutes like we witness on television.
An example of how long it takes for DNA evidence to return positive identification on an unknown person occurred recently in Utah. An unidentified skeleton was located in the West desert over a decade ago and was laid on a table in the morgue to await any lead in the case. Law enforcement received a tip on possible relatives and collected DNA from living next-of-kin for comparison. I was instructed by the medical examiner to cut a piece of bone from the femur and ship it to a lab in Texas where the DNA process could be performed at no cost to taxpayers. The process took several years due to backlog at the Texas lab, but eventually identification was made by comparison to a missing persons database and our newly identified skeleton was finally laid to rest.
Finally, (C) ‘Which [crime television] character am I most like?’ I feel that I relate most to NCIS character Abby Sciuto. I love her upbeat gothic style. I once had an employee that donned that style, but refused to accept that the style was gothic. Like Abby I believe in the supernatural and I love all things macabre, however, I am a scientist at heart and usually have an explanation for everything. I am at home in my lab—the morgue—and prefer it over scene investigation. I get to wear scrubs and personal protective equipment like face shields and aprons while death investigators wear their plain clothes to the death scene and leave those scenes smelly and grotesque. I believe that everybody has a job to do and not all jobs are for everyone. Working at a morgue reminds me every day that life is short, so do what you do best and be happy doing it.
For more information please visit www.brandcall.wordpress.com.