Fact versus Fiction
Fact versus Fiction
The cause and manner of death are indisputable statements of fact.
The cause and manner of death are statements of opinion based on evidence found during the entire death investigation. The medical examiners are professionally qualified and trained to evaluate all relevant information from medical history, circumstances, witness statements, autopsy and subsequent analyses to determine cause and manner of death.
48 hours after the police get involved in a homicide, the evidence is analyzed, the suspect is caught and the case is closed.
Even the simplest homicide is rarely solved in 48 hours. The investigating law enforcement agency works with the Lewis and Clark County Office of the Coroner to piece the case together, assessing the scene, evidence, suspects, witnesses, next-of-kin, etc. The medical examiner performs the autopsy after the body is brought to the office. In some cases, toxicology specimens and other evidence is collected and then analyzed before the cause and manner of death are determined. The law enforcement agency continues its investigation to determine and then ultimately capture any suspect(s). This process can range from days to weeks to months.
You can overdose on water.
Water intoxication can occur. By drinking too much water, one can develop hyponatremia, the dilution of blood. The excess water ends up in cells, causing them to swell up. This becomes a problem primarily in the brain, where there is limited space for cells to expand. Severe cases exhibit symptoms such as headache, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, frequent urination and mental disorientation.
A single forensic investigator can collect and analyze all evidence from a crime scene and then pursue the suspect.
Crime scene investigation and analysis requires a whole team of experts to collect and process evidence. Many times the collector of evidence is different from the analyst processing the evidence. The identification and pursuit of suspects are up to the law enforcement agency’s detectives and other officers.
Everyone who dies ends up at the Office of the Coroner.
Not all deaths require investigation and examination by the Office of the Coroner and Medical Examiner. In general, the Coroner or Deputy Coroner investigates sudden, violent or unusual deaths and those deaths where the decedent has not been seen by a physician 30 days prior to death.
What should I do now?
Select a local funeral home. Please notify our office as soon as possible which funeral home you have selected to handle the arrangements. Our office does not select funeral homes, nor do we make arrangements.
Where will my relative/friend be taken?
He/She will be taken to a funeral home of your choosing, unless other special testing (autopsy) is required by the Office of the Coroner.
Is it necessary for me to come to the Office of the Coroner to identify the body?
No. In the majority of cases, visual identification is not required. Should it become necessary for you to visit our office or to bring records or x-rays, the Coroner or Deputy Coroner will contact you.
Is viewing allowed?
No. The Office of the Coroner’s facility is not designed to accommodate viewing. Arrangements for viewing may be made at the selected funeral home.
How long will it take before my relative/friend is released from your office?
Generally, it should not take more than two to three days. The Funeral Director of your choice will coordinate the release on your behalf.
Will I be charged for other Coroner services?
Why do I need a death certificate?
The death certificate is the official legal record of death. It includes information about the deceased and about their cause of death. Insurance companies, the United States Social Security Administration, and other agencies may request certified copies of the death certificate as proof of death.
Where can I obtain a death certificate?
Our office does not maintain and/or distribute death certificates. You can request a death certificate at the Department of Health and Human Services Office of Vital Records and the Lewis and Clark County Clerk and Recorder.
Is there financial assistance available to me?
There is no financial assistance through the County at this time. In these circumstances, the legal next of kin should contact the selected funeral home and discuss additional options with them.
My relative/friend was in the military, who can I contact for burial information?
Persons who have served in the United States Armed Forces, were honorably discharged, and meet other service requirements may be entitled to a Veteran's burial. For information contact the Fort Harrison Department of Military and Veterans Affairs at 406-442-6410 or online www.montana.va.gov. For more information on Veterans or Social Security benefits, contact your funeral director.
How and when can personal possessions be claimed?
Any of a decedent’s personal possessions in the custody of the Office of the Coroner may be claimed by the legal next of kin. Governmental documents (driver’s licenses, passports, military identification cards belonging to the decedent) will not be released to the next of kin. These documents will be returned to the issuing agency for disposition. To avoid any inconvenience to you, please call the Office of the Coroner before coming into the office.
The Property Officer will advise you if any documents will be needed and of any other requirements. Sometimes personal possessions are taken into custody by other law enforcement agencies. You will need to contact those agencies to recover personal possessions in their custody. Clothing is not usually considered property. Unless there is a need to hold clothing as evidence, it is released to the mortuary recovering the deceased. Clothing that presents a health and safety hazard will be disposed of for the safety of all persons involved.
I need to enter my relative/friend's residence, but it is sealed. What can I do?
In order to enter you need to obtain permission from the agency listed on the door seal.
Why is the Office of the Coroner involved?
State law requires the Office of the Coroner to inquire into and determine the circumstances, manner, and cause of all sudden, violent, or unusual deaths and those deaths where the decedent poses a health hazard. In such cases the deceased will be taken to the Office of the Coroner’s facility and examined to determine the cause of death. Occasionally, more extensive testing is required such as an autopsy, in which case the decedent will be transported to the Medical Examiner's Office in Missoula Montana. An interim or “Pending” death certificate is issued which will allow the family to make funeral arrangements. An amendment will later be issued to accompany the death certificate following completion of special testing (autopsy, toxicology).
What about tissue/organ donation?
The Office of the Coroner supports the donation of organs and tissues. With consent, many types of organs and tissues may be donated to help others. If you are interested in donation, please let our office know and we can assist in notifying the appropriate agency.
Are tissues, organs, blood and/or body fluids retained after the autopsy and the release of the body?
Yes, if the Coroner and Medical Examiner believe it will assist the inquiry into cause and manner of death, the decedent’s tissue(s)/organ(s)/body fluid(s) may be retained for analysis and/or evidentiary purposes pursuant to MCA 46-4-110. Tissues/organs/body fluids retained at autopsy or as part of any Medical Examiner investigative procedure will be disposed of pursuant to MCA 46-4-103 (2).
Will an autopsy report be available to me?
Yes, upon request.
Frequently Asked Questions:
Frequently Asked Questions:
How can I obtain a death certificate?
Our Department does not maintain and/or distribute death certificates. The Clerk and Recorder at the City/County Building located at City/County Building, 316 North Park Avenue, Helena, MT 59601 (406)-447-8334 or the Office of Vital Records Department of Public Health and Human Services, 111 North Sanders, Room 6, Helena MT 59604 (406) 444-2685.
What is an autopsy?
During autopsy a forensic pathologist examines the body. The pathologist looks for disease or injury. He or she takes specimens of organs and body fluids for testing. The Department of Justice Forensic Science Division, also known as the Montana State Crime Lab, may retain tissues, organs or body fluids. Sometimes the pathologist keeps a whole organ such as the brain or heart for more testing. This testing occurs after the release of the body to the mortuary chosen by the next of kin. The pathologist then prepares a written autopsy report. These reports typically take 6-8 weeks.
Why does the Coroner order autopsies?
The Office of the Coroner’s concern is to determine cause and manner of death. Determining the cause of death in a person may help identify family histories, contagious disease, and help prevent further premature or preventable deaths within the community. In criminal cases, autopsies help courts to reach a just verdict. Finally, autopsies help families understand how the death occurred and provide closure. This can be an important step in the grieving process.
What does the coroner report include?
A coroner report includes the autopsy report, toxicology report, and the investigation report. Law enforcement reports and medical records are not provided by the Office of the Coroner. Photographs are not provided in the coroner report. Only under a court order will the Office of the Coroner release photographs to the legal next of kin.
How do I obtain the coroner report?
A court order must be submitted to the Lewis and Clark County Attorney.
How much does a copy of the coroner report cost?
$1.00 per page.
What if I do not want an autopsy performed on my relative or friend?
Please let us know as soon as you can. We try to accommodate the family’s wishes when possible; however, sometimes an autopsy is required. A legal certificate of religious belief must be filed prior to the autopsy. A court order can override this certificate. Religious belief exemptions cannot be made for children under 18.
People with a religious objection to an autopsy can prepare a Certificate of Religious Belief, Montana Government Code ____________ explains how.
What if I want an autopsy performed on my relative?
If your relative or friend is not a Coroner case, a private autopsy can be done. However, the legal next of kin must issue a statement as to why they would like a private autopsy and will need to provide a signed death certificate, all medical records, and pay the fee for private autopsy. Exhumation costs are not included.
The Medical Examiner determines the level of examination needed for all Coroner cases. Not all cases that fit coroner criteria require an autopsy. You may request that an autopsy be performed, but it will be the Medical Examiner’s decision if one is clinically or legally necessary.
Can I have an open casket service after an autopsy?
It depends. Autopsies do not eliminate the possibility of open casket services. However, not all decedents are appropriate for viewing due to trauma or other circumstances. Please consult with your local funeral home for more information.
When will I know the cause of death?
The pathologist can sometimes determine the cause of death right after examination. Other times, the pathologist needs to have more tests done. In that case, the County will issue a deferred death certificate. Toxicology testing can be a lengthy process due to the thoroughness and quality of our lab testing. While much of the toxicology testing can be completed in 6-8 weeks, it often takes longer than that. Thank you for your patience.
Once the additional testing is completed, the pathologist can amend the death certificate, if needed, with the final cause of death.
What should I do with my relative's or friend's prescriptions?
Prescription medication should be given directly to the Coroner or Deputy Coroner. They will properly dispose of these medications per Environmental Protection Act (EPA) and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) requirements.
How long does it take to get the toxicology results?
Toxicology testing can be a lengthy process due to the thoroughness and quality of our lab testing. While much of the toxicology testing can be completed in 6-8 weeks, it often takes longer than that. Thank you for your patience.
Can I request additional testing?
Depending on the case, it is possible but will be at your own expense if the Coroner or Deputy Coroner did not believe additional testing is necessary to the death investigation.