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A coroner is a public official who investigates the cause, time, and circumstances of human deaths that occur in a specific geographical area, especially those that are sudden, suspicious, or violent, which may have resulted from natural causes (including mass disasters), and in which no attending physician was present. Other responsibilities of coroners include issuing death certificates, maintaining death records, and helping to identify dead victims. Coroners come to their conclusions by reviewing the death scene, assessing the circumstances of death, and reviewing medical records. While many people believe autopsies are needed to establish the time, manner, and cause of death, this is actually only needed in a minority of cases.

Each jurisdiction has different sets of laws delineating the responsibilities and qualifications of coroners and the roles they may serve in legal investigations.  For example, some coroners can issue arrest warrants, arrest murder suspects, carry firearms, hold people in contempt for not cooperating with an investigation, and act as sheriff is the office is vacant. Qualifications to be a coroner are quite variable from state to state and some require little or no training in the medical field.  This is why some coroners contract with physicians to perform the actual medical investigation and focus mostly on advocating for the dead by ensuring the case is investigated properly.
In some states a coroner is appointed, in others the coroner is elected, and in others the coroner is decided by winning an election in another office (e.g., Nebraska county district attorney) and becoming the county coroner by default. Most coroners have historically been morticians but some states require the coroner to be a physician.  This can be a general physician but some states require the physician to be a forensic pathologist, which is someone who specializes in the study of disease and the cause of death by examining a corpse.

Some jurisdictions use a medical examiner system to determine the cause of death as opposed to a coroner system, each of which defined somewhat differently according to the jurisdiction in terms of qualifications and responsibilities.  Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, medical examiners generally require more stringent training and qualifications than coroners. Specifically, medical examiners usually have a medical degree, are usually appointed officials, typically perform autopsies, and typically do not have the legal enforcement powers that coroners have. Some jurisdictions blend the two terms together in a coroner-medical examiner system. Coroner comes from the Latin word “corona” meaning “a crown.”