I have a real treat for you today. There’s a new show on Investigation Discovery (ID channel) that premieres tonight, “THE CORONER: I SPEAK FOR THE DEAD.” Renowned Coroner Graham Hetrick took time out of his busy schedule to come to speak with us. How cool is that? Check out the trailer for the show…
Welcome, Graham! On your blog, you mention working with a team. Can you describe who makes up the team and what their duties are? If you could explain the hierarchy of each position, that’d be great, too.
Graham: The word “forensic” means science applied to law. My particular science is medical/legal investigation. I study the evidence on or about the body, using scientific methods. In a death investigation there are various fields of science, such as pathology, taphonomy, botany, entomology. Each one of these sciences give information, such as time of death, presence of drugs, past medical history, and pattern wound analysis. My job is to analyze the scene and determine what studies must be done. There is no real hierarchy to it, only the fact that I process the body and determine the methods needed to do so. I often compare my work to that of a symphony conductor, orchestrating the parts.
Sue: What specifically are you looking for when examining the dead? I realize it’s different for each case. Just boil it down for us.
Graham: It is very different from case to case. What I look for in each case is patterns. Patterns create inductive data that shift the focus in determining cause and manner of death. If it is a shooting, I look for sooting, stippling and bullet angle. In a poison case, toxicology is a major element. I work with a brilliant toxicologist, Dr. Wayne Ross, MD. He is a board certified forensic pathologist but he also has many subspecialties. I do some dissection, but I spend considerable time overseeing the entire process, especially the documentation of all the evidence. Photography is the most important tool of all forensic documentation.
Sue: You’ve had the unique opportunity of being on all sides of death investigations, from growing up in a funeral home to death investigator to coroner. How does your vast experience, as well as your upbringing, aid in speaking for the dead?
Graham: I believe in a universal guiding force. The universe has placed me in circumstances in which I have always been surrounded by death. I was born above a funeral home. While in the military I specialized in the medical/legal side of investigations. Then in graduate school while studying psychology, I developed an interest in Elizabeth Kübler- Ross’s works on thanatology. Ultimately, I ended up following in my father’s footsteps, and became a funeral director. In 1990, I ran for the office of coroner and was back in forensics. My fascination with the dead is that if we learn to read the language of the patterns they leave behind, they tell us a story about their life. When we study the dead, they can tell us how we live and how we should live.
Sue: Can you paint us a mental picture of a typical day as coroner, thanatologist, and medical legal death investigator, including the tools you use in your work?
Graham: Well, to tell you the truth, there is no typical day. My day today started at 3:00 am when a somewhat shaken new deputy coroner called to inform me that we had a shooting in the city with one person down. She was informed that the scene was still “hot”- meaning dangerous. I told her to hold her position at the forensic center and I would respond and go down with her. This life is 24/7 and I am the coroner before all other functions in my life. Tomorrow I have hundreds of people coming to a vineyard for the local premiere of the show. I have tons to organize and write and also many interviews. But being coroner is the nucleus of my life and everything else works around that hub.
I arise early and meditate for about two hours each day. Tuesdays and Thursdays are when we do autopsies. On those days everything starts at about 5-5:30 a.m. After the autopsies, I start to review cases and determine cause and manner of death. Many times I will review cases and request further study or investigation. It’s not all mystery and investigation, however, I also have the administrative responsibility of the office. This means that throughout the day I deal with everything from training to personnel issues. There are also budget and political issues like any other government official.
There are many times when the day is lost in the exhilaration of the forensic sciences. I might learn of a new process that improves the documentation process. One of the tools I use the most is called a macroscope, which is like a large microscope on wheels. It has an armature with a camera on it. It is used mostly in clinical pathology but thanks to a grant that was approved, I have used it extensively in cases where examining patterns is important. I can enlarge an image by a hundred times, document it in high resolution, calibrate and make notations on each picture. From the smallest petechial hemorrhage to the presence of unspent gunpowder, the macroscope detects it. We use other tools such as alternative light sources. On a cellular level, exotic stain can show post or peri mortem wounds. New tools and techniques are developed every year.
Sue: When you’re investigating an untimely death, what’s the first thing you’d look at after manner and cause of death have been established?
Graham: Most deaths we investigate are the sudden or untimely deaths. Death for us comes in what we call the manner of death: homicide, suicide, accidental or natural. We also have a category called “undetermined” which means we can’t give a cause with reasonable medical certainty. Almost all of our sudden natural deaths are cardiovascular related. Cancers and other long-term medical conditions will most likely be signed out by the attending physician. In my squad room is a large sign and which states: “First rule out homicide.” This is our first hypothesis and only when that theory is tested and fails do we go on to the next hypothesis. Homicide requires the highest level of documentation and evidence collection. Like any good scientist we test and retest multiple theories.
Sue: A while back I wrote a post entitled, What happens Inside an Autopsy Suite? But your duties far exceed the average coroner. I’m assuming that’s because of your additional education in death investigation and thanatology. Could you tell us what studies/courses/degrees are needed to become a licensed medical death investigator and thanatologist?
Graham: My great certification is life experience. I was doing grief counseling before there were certifications for such a role. Over the years I have done thousands of funerals and helped many through the process of grieving and lost recovery. As a coroner I have certified over 13,000 death certificate, giving the cause and manner of death. I have both a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree. I was trained as a military policeman and then was assigned to the 52nd CID where I served in southern Germany. During that time, I investigated all types of crimes from murder to petty larceny. I have national certification as a medical legal investigator by the American College of Forensic Examiners and I am a fellow of that particular organization. I am an adjunct professor at the Harrisburg University of Science and technology, where I have developed courses in behavior evidence analysis, crime scene management, medical legal investigation, introduction to forensic science, anatomy and case studies. I have written and lectured in the area of understanding the grieving process. So as one can see I have taught different aspect of death from it physical implications to the psychological aspects of our reaction to our own mortality. I would say if you are interested in the study of death, educate yourself and find programs that provide you with a well-rounded understanding of all its aspects—from the scientific to the social and psychological.
Sue: How does examining wound patterns help a homicide investigation? Let’s also try to lessen the CSI Effect here by sharing what databases are available for investigators and what ones are made for TV.
Graham: There definitely is a CSI effect on many juries. They watch programs where actors are in deluxe laboratories touching the screens of advanced computers, getting instant information or seeing holograms of skeletons with facial reconstruction. This is all forensics with some strange Star Trek twist. In most cases, our data comes in over days or weeks, not by the moment. Much of what we do, like toxicology, is outsourced to a private forensic lab and even with the red letters “STAT” on the box, it can take five days to a full week for the results to come back. The forensic sciences used on TV are real, but they over exaggerate the bells and whistles. We work fast compared to when I started in 1990. I remember in 1990, DNA was first being admitted in court and photography was still done with the 35mm camera.
Sue: In a recent interview with Detective (Ret.) Kim McGath, we learned that redacted autopsy reports are available to the public. What, if any, other information is available that might help crime writers?
Graham: Most writers should realize that coroner narratives and autopsy or other studies conducted by the coroner’s office are considered public record in many states. In my state of Pennsylvania, cases must be filed as public record once the case is closed. I know for “THE CORONER: I SPEAK FOR THE DEAD,” many of the researchers had to obtain court records. I believe that another great informational resource for writers are the conventions of the various forensic societies, such as the American Academy of Forensic Scientists.
Sue: Your new show on Investigation Discovery (ID channel) looks amazing. “THE CORONER: I SPEAK FOR THE DEAD” premieres tonight @ 10 p.m. Folks, be sure to tune in! What do you hope viewers will take away from the show, week after week?
Graham: I want the show to portray the role of a coroner and medical legal investigator. I also want to look deeper into the causes of homicide and the tragic results for those left behind. We, as a society, must start having a real, thoughtful and open conversation about violence.
Sue: Thank you so much for joining us today, Graham. It’s been a pleasure having you here on the blog. We’ll be watching tonight!