9 Random Facts Gleaned from a Tour of the Coroner’s Office

by Shannon Lawrence —

El Paso County Coroner and Lead Medical Examiner, Dr. Leon Kelly, was kind enough to give an informational talk, tour, and Q&A to a group of local writers set up by HWA Colorado. We viewed the autopsy space, the refrigerated area with bodies waiting to be examined, a body, and beetles working at cleaning the tissues from a portion of a skeleton. Here were a few takeaways:

  1. You’ve heard of blunt force, but there are two other primary types of force: sharp and chop.
  2. Chop force is a combination of sharp and blunt, such as death by an axe or a propeller.
  3. Entrance wounds from bullets are round. Even if there’s been additional damage, the skin can be folded back to show the round hole.
  4. Tissue bridging can help determine that a wound was made by blunt force, not sharp force: these are small “bridges” of flesh across an open wound.
  5. There is no consistent coroner/medical examiner system across the country.
  6. In Colorado, a coroner’s requirements are simply that they be 18, a U.S. citizen, a resident of the county, and that they have no felonies. That’s it. A medical degree is not required. (Dr. Kelly does have extensive medical schooling and background, and is a forensic pathologist.)
  7. The coroner system goes back to feudal England. That’s how archaic it is.
  8. There are five possible categories of manner of death that can be on a death certificate: natural, accidental, suicide, homicide, and undetermined.
  9. Homicide does not automatically indicate intentional murder. It means a death was caused by someone else’s action upon the victim.

Of course, we learned a ton more, but these are some points that stuck out. There is also an option for an early morning tour when autopsies are taking place. Our tour was late at night, after close, when everyone had been zipped back into their body bags to await the next day. Though the beetles were still hard at work, cleaning bones.

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