“Manner of Death”

I’m embarrassed to admit how long ago the following question was asked. I remember setting it aside because it was a good topic and I wanted to give it a well developed answer. Thanks for your patience, Terri.

I do understand that sometimes other investigative agencies other than the coroner are relied upon to determine manner of death, but let’s say someone has a gun shot wound. All agencies know who shot this person. The question is “was it justifiable or not?” Doesn’t the coroner list the manner as homicide regardless of the justifiability?–Terri


It depends on the particular agency or in some cases the individual that is certifying the death. Some agencies have policies on how they rule certain deaths based on a literal interpretation of the circumstances or on the charges that are likely to be filed. In some situations, the element of “intent” may help determine the manner of death.

Let’s say someone breaks into my house and I shoot them before they shoot me. I admit to the police that I’m the one who shot the intruder. Upon examination, the victim is found to have a distant range gunshot wound to the chest. When it comes to certifying, the Medical Examiner/Coroner (ME/C) is primarily focused on how the decedent died and not the issue of justifiability. That’s an issue for the law enforcement agency and the district attorney’s office to sort out when they decide whether or not to press charges.

Additionally, U.S. death certificates typically only have six options for classifying the death with no provision for justifiability. These are as follows:

–Pending Investigation (or Pending Further Studies)
–Could not be determined (or Undetermined)

In my shooting scenario, there’s a gunshot wound involved so Natural is out. I intentionally discharged the weapon, so Accident is out. The victim didn’t pull the trigger, so Suicide is out. The certifier may elect to classify the death as Pending Investigation/Further Studies, but at some point they have to place the death into one of the other categories when the investigation is officially completed. “Could not be determined” doesn’t apply because we know what happened.

Let’s say the above victim was actually found dead in his front yard with the same distant range gunshot wound to the chest. Without knowing the particular circumstances of the shooting, we can infer that someone else pulled the trigger and the death should therefore be classified as a Homicide.

Now, let’s say I was out hunting with some friends of mine, my shotgun accidentally discharged, and one of my friends was fatally shot. Two separate investigations would then follow. Law enforcement would investigate the shooting incident and the ME/C would investigate the resulting death. Regardless of my intent, our policy would have been to classify the death as a Homicide because we use the literal definition of Homicide—the killing of one person by another.

Even though the manner of death is listed as Homicide, law enforcement may conclude that the shooting was indeed accidental and the prosecutor may decline to press charges. The end result is that the ME/C has taken law enforcement’s investigation into consideration but ruled differently. Conversely, the ME/C may classify a motor vehicle fatality as accidental, but the agency and prosecutor may elect to pursue manslaughter charges because the surviving driver was intoxicated.

The reliance of the ME/C on other investigative agencies to accurately classify the manner of death is really quite common. The postmortem examination can verify that someone died from a hard contact gunshot wound to the head, but—in the absence of obvious physical evidence—such an examination will not indicate unequivocally that the wound was self-inflicted. It is typically law enforcement’s investigation that provides the information necessary to distinguish between a suicide and a homicide. Details such as recent personal loss, severe depression, or suicidal ideation are common indicators of suicidal intent.

I should also point out that there’s a reciprocal element to this reliance. Many times the law enforcement agency may treat a death as a natural event pending any information to the contrary from the ME/C.


3 Responses to ““Manner of Death””

  1. 1 Laura
    February 13, 2007 at 3:07 pm

    I just want to let you know how valuable your site is to me. Im sixteen years old and have long since decided on becoming a coroner. Its hard to find any information on said career in this small town and noone really seems prone to giving me information so thank you! ^_^. ( it seems unlikely that a teenage girl can already be so decided on a future such as this and despite what anyone says: Im gonna do it!)

  2. 2 Audrey
    March 1, 2007 at 8:49 pm

    Wow me also, ive been reading and researching to be a coroner ever since i saw a movie on the morgue. To get back on subject this website has made it easy to warm up to it since i have close to 10 years left untill i can become a coroner thanks and i love the articles

  3. 3 Laura
    March 6, 2007 at 4:53 pm

    I’ve wanted to ever since……I woke up one day….I guess…*laughs* Its good to get a first hand look at what the job entitles.

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