Florida Medical Examiner System
A medical examiner in Florida is a physician, usually a forensic pathologist, who is trained to perform autopsies. A coroner in another state may or may not be a physician. The word "coroner" originated from the old English term "crowner", which was the man who was designated by the crown to investigate deaths in his area. He rendered an opinion – whether it was good, bad, or indifferent. Coroners did not have a good insight in various causes of death because they did not have a medical background. They would offer opinions on the cause of death without the benefit of an autopsy. A medical examiner is a physician and pathologist who has been trained in these areas.
In the early days of Florida legislation, elected Justices of the Peace functioned as coroners in a politically established coroner system. The position was powerful, both politically and economically, and a starting point for attaining other political offices. Prosecutors were often powerless against the justices because they had to try cases in their courts. Local physicians tried and failed to reform the system. Most physicians were not politically perceptive and refused to play the political competitions the position required. A series of botched death investigations triggered the move to enact the medical examiner system.
In 1955, the proposed medical examiner system legislation was drafted and then introduced during the last two days of the legislative session with the hope to evade the justices' attention. The legislation was passed and created one medical examiner office. The system eventually failed after a lawsuit was issued about an "unauthorized" autopsy and the laws failed to protect the medical examiner.
The Florida Medical Association was able to push for a reform and establish minimum and uniform standards of excellence in statewide medical examiner services. (Florida Statute 406). They noticed that surrounding counties were referring their cases to the one facility. They realized that Florida was too large to have one medical examiner and developed a regional medical examiner system based on the referral patterns. With a cooperation of a medical, legal, and law enforcement entities, a commission was established to oversee the district medical examiners.
Prior to the adoption of
Florida Statute 406, Dr. Wallace M. Graves started performing autopsies at Lee Memorial Hospital in 1970. In 1972, Dr. Wallace Graves accepted an Associate Medical Examiner position with Collier County (District 20). In 1973, Dr. Graves became the first Chief Medical Examiner for the District 21 Medical Examiner's Office (Lee, Hendry and Glades Counties). Dr. Graves began his 20 year tenure on the Medical Examiner Commission in 1974 and was elected Chairman of the Commission in 1979. Dr. Graves retired as Chief Medical Examiner for District 21 in 1996 and passed away on January 12, 2010.
The first District 21 "medical examiner" office was in the morgue of Lee Memorial Hospital at a cost of $25 per case. Dr. Graves was only permitted to perform autopsies on bodies that were not decomposed. If a body was decomposed and would cause odor problems, autopsies had to be moved to a shed that had no electricity or water. The shed had been donated by a funeral home.
In 1976, Dr. Graves won a commitment from the Board to begin planning for a complete medical examiner building. A new building was dedicated in 1987 at 70 Danley Drive, Fort Myers, Florida, which is still the current location of the medical examiner's office. In 1990, the facility was expanded to keep up with the growth of the counties it serves. The additions included a lab, walk-in refrigerated storage areas, conference and meeting rooms, plus office space for the doctors, technicians and administrative staff. In 2005, the building underwent a second renovation and expansion to accommodate the rapidly growing counties.
There are currently 25 district offices within the Florida Medical Examiner System. Each district has a Chief Medical Examiner who independently, objectively and scientifically determines the cause and manner of death under certain circumstances. Chief Medical Examiners are appointed by the Governor and are reappointed every three years in non-home role jurisdictions. Associate Medical Examiners, Forensic Investigators, Morgue Personnel and law enforcement agencies assist the Chief Medical Examiner.
The current Chief Medical Examiner is Dr. Rebecca Hamilton. Dr. Hamilton was appointed in 2001.
The District 21 Medical Examiner's Office provides medicolegal investigative services for the citizens of Lee, Hendry and Glades Counties. District 21 Medical Examiner's Office is an independent entity from all law enforcement agencies and hospitals within its jurisdiction. The combined efforts of medicine, science, legal and policy investigations are utilized to ascertain the facts surrounding deaths, particularly the cause and manner of death. The District 21 Medical Examiner's Office works closely with many other agencies, including F.B.I., State Attorneys, Public Defenders, law enforcement agencies, medical offices and hospitals, funeral homes, and the media. Currently, the District 21 Medical Examiner's Office has 18 employees.
For a more information regarding the Florida Medical Examiner System, visit the following websites:
Death Investigation in America: Coroners, Medical Examiners, and the Pursuit of Medical Certainty. Harvard University Press, 2009.