The responsibilities of the Lewis and Clark County Office of the Coroner are complex. Per Montana law, it is the responsibility of the department to inquire into and determine the circumstances, manner and cause of deaths which fall within its jurisdiction. These deaths include any suspected homicide, suicide, or accidental deaths. These also include any natural death were there either is no physician to sign a death certificate, or the physician is unwilling or legally prohibited from doing so. Additionally, other certain causes of death are also mandated to be investigated by the coroner.
The manner and cause of death inquiries may require reviews of medical records, interviews with family members or witnesses, and post mortem examinations. The Office of the Coroner is authorized to order autopsies, collect evidence, bodily fluids and tissues for toxicology testing and microscopic study. The Montana Department of Justice Forensic Science Division (MT State Crime Lab) located in Missoula, Montana, and Billings, Montana, conduct the autopsies and process toxicology. Upon completion of these tests, the MT State Crime Lab notifies the Office of the Coroner of the results and determination.
The cause of death is used to complete the decedent’s death certificate. Evidence collected during autopsies and at the scene of the death can be used for criminal prosecution as well as determining the cause of death. The Coroner and Deputy Coroner are constantly on alert for deaths which may pose a threat to public health from communicable disease or through product liability.
The department’s responsibilities also include the identification of decedents. Identification may be as simple as matching the decedent to a driver’s license or other identification documents. The identification process may need to utilize fingerprints, dental records, body x-rays or additional specimen testing. Identifying the decedent’s next of kin, notifying them of the death and securing the decedent’s personal property are additional responsibilities of the department. In deaths where the decedent died at scene, department personnel are responsible for removal and transportation of the decedent. The Coroner and Deputy Coroner will also obtain information from family, friends and public safety personnel regarding the terminal episode. The Coroner and Deputy Coroner serve as the eyes, ears and hands of the forensic pathologists in the field.