Academic journal article TriQuarterly

The Coroner's Report

Academic journal article TriQuarterly

The Coroner's Report

Article excerpt

At 333 Willow Road a thirty-five year old woman sipping tea in her back yard falls off a picnic bench and stops breathing. A six year old boy in kangaroo pajamas opens the door for us when we arrive.

"You've come to the right place," he says. "Everyone is in the back yard."

Two medics and three blues stand in a semi-circle around the body waiting for us. They're not allowed to touch the body until we arrive. My trainee Andrew removes the cap from his pen and writes: "Body supine."

"That's my mother," the boy says, his hands hanging at his side. "I called 911 and no one answered so I called again and told them she was dead." He stares without blinking at the body."

Where's your father ?"

"He lives in California. We don't know where. I'll never see him again."

Andrew interviews the medics while I walk back through the house taking mental notes I will write down after we have delivered the body to the morgue. In the living room: a blank TV, smell of Pinesol, rug recently vacuumed. In the kitchen: a half-eaten turkey sandwich, an unfinished glass of milk on a counter, a napkin folded over, the sliding glass door open to the deck and back yard. The time the boy called the dispatch: 11:42 A.M.; the time they arrived: 11:55; the time we were called: 12:10. It is now 12:20.

"Asphyxia," Andrew says leaning down over the body's open mouth and eyes. She wears running shoes and nylon shorts, a thin gold watch and a small silver ring.

"No purple." He nods and runs his hand along the muscles of her neck and shoulder. Rigor already, I can see from the stiffness. The morgue guys arrive in their white overalls and shortly after them Patty from child protective services. The position of the bench indicates she fell directly onto the grass. Obviously no foul play, though sudden death requires we take pictures.

After Andrew finishes with the camera, he stands next to the boy on the porch. "What about him?"

I point to Patty standing by the sliding glass door in her blue slacks and tan blouse. She places a hand on the boy's shoulder and slowly turns him away from the scene to a new life none of us can anticipate.

"What happens to him ?" Andrew asks. They always ask questions like this when they're right out of the academy."

He goes with her for now."

In the back of the morgue van in the dark with the body we review the case.

"No abuse to the body, no sign of struggle, no sign of forced entry," Andrew answers my questions.

"Something happened. If she didn't choke, what happened?"

He is silent. A good sign. Above all I want him to focus.

In America the course to become a coroner lasts no more than a few weeks. When I first started there was no course. The chief coroner was appointed and he chose deputies. There was no one to learn from, no books to read on the subject, just a brief outline describing our duties, a badge, and a gun. In those days most of the guys came directly from the police, but I joined from the ambulance service where I had grown tired of arriving too late.

The scene of a crime does not remain static for long. The blood starts to settle, the muscles stiffen into rigor mortis. Pieces of evidence, even the body itself, are often moved by inexperienced officers. After twelve hours, for instance, the temperature in the body is no longer significant. Before that time we can discover, by jabbing a needle into the liver, how long the body has been dead. Doctors report hospital deaths to us, but we do not investigate. If they do not die in the hospital or in the presence of a physician we are required to respond. A large percentage of deaths are self-inflicted. Without conclusive evidence they are labeled natural.

Most of the calls during the day involve accidents. A few involve suspicious death. Those calls, when they come, come at night. It is fine for other people to believe what they want, but it is important that Andrew dispense with numerous misconceptions: drowning victims do not come up three times before going down for good; a shot through the head or heart will not kill someone instantly; and exit wounds for bullets are not always larger than entrance wounds. …

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