Medical Examiner's Office
The county medical examiner is an officer of the State of North Carolina, charged with the duty of investigating and certifying specified categories of human deaths in North Carolina. A medical examiner's authority derives from Article 16 of Section 130A of the North Carolina General Statutes.
His/her primary purpose is to detect, analyze, and document the medical aspects of certain types of deaths so that deaths can be better understood scientifically, legally, and socially.
The following types of deaths in North Carolina are to be reported to a medical examiner:
- Unknown, unnatural or suspicious circumstances
- In police custody, jail or prison
- Poisoning or suspicion of poisoning
- Public health hazard (such as acute contagious disease or epidemic)
- Deaths during surgical or anesthetic procedures
- Sudden unexpected deaths not reasonably related to known previous disease
- Deaths without medical attendance
Every death that is due to or might reasonably have been due to a violent or traumatic injury or accident is to be investigated by the medical examiner. This includes all murders, suicides, accidents, poisonings, etc. Note that every death due to a violent cause is to be investigated, regardless of the duration of survival (including hospitalizations) of the decedent after his/her injury. If there is any question as to whether or not a given death should be investigated by he medical examiner, please call the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) for consultation. The toll free number is 1-800-672-7024.
A death will be reported to a medical examiner by any person who has knowledge of the death or who finds the dead body. The body should not be removed from the scene of death until the medical examiner has authorized the removal. If an ME plans to go to the scene to view the body this should be made clear to the notifying agents and the ME should respond promptly. Law enforcement officials may authorize removal in emergency situations.
The ME should make arrangements with law enforcement agencies, funeral homes, and hospitals in the area to facilitate the prompt disposition of the body. The medical examiner may direct that a body be removed from the scene to a more convenient repository for detailed examination at a more convenient time. Most cases will not require the medical examiner's presence at the scene of the death, and the law does not require a scene visit. The ME should make a special effort, if at all possible, to visit the scene of all homicide deaths, and to such other scenes of death as may contribute to a better understanding of the case. If the medical examiner does not visit the scene, the information about the scene, how the body was found, etc., must be obtained from law enforcement, EMS personnel or others having such direct knowledge.
Medical Examiners should order an autopsy on:
- All homicides and suspected homicides
- Suspected drug related deaths, illicit or prescription
- Deaths in jail, prison, or under law enforcement custody or control
- Hit and run accidents
- Victims alleged to have been lying in the roadway or on railroad tracks before being struck
- Pilots and crew in aircraft crashes, private and commercial
- Sudden unexpected deaths where the decedent does not have a well-documented illness that would explain death (All such deaths in young adults, children, and infants, including SIDS cases, should be autopsied. Deaths in the elderly should be considered on a case by case basis.)
- Suspicious or contested suicides
- Accidental deaths where the observable injuries do not appear sufficient to explain death or seem inconsistent with the alleged "accident"
- Possible public health hazard when the autopsy is the most expeditious means of determining whether in fact a hazard exists
- Law enforcement insistence
- Badly burned (charred) bodies
- Badly disfigured bodies when identification may be an issue, especially if there are multiple fatalities
- Skeletonized remains
- Badly decomposed remains
- Any death where there is a reasonable suspicion that trauma (external force) may have been the cause or a contributing cause and an autopsy will settle the issue.
- Apparently natural deaths in known alcoholics and drug abusers
- Deaths of travelers, vacationers, convention attendees, workers, students, and other strangers from afar should be carefully evaluated before a decision NOT to autopsy is made