The phone rings; another dramatic death has occurred. D.B. Russell, Julie "Finn" Finlay, Nick Stokes and Sara Sidle rush into action. That's how it works in the fictional world of "CSI: Las Vegas." In Pennsylvania, coroners and their staffs investigate loss of life.
Every four years, without Hollywood hype, the voters of Lehigh County elect a coroner. Until he is needed, some voters don't remember his name. But, coroners give each death an identity. They are responsible for determining the cause and the manner of an individual's demise. Cause is the medical explanation as to why a person ceases to be: heart failure, asphyxiation, trauma, etc. Manner relates to how the cause of death is delivered: natural, accident, suicide, homicide and undetermined.
Scott M. Grim, D-ABMDI, Lehigh County's coroner, describes his job as "non-routine, challenging and educational."
Grim heads a team of 19: 10 full-time and eight part-time investigators, plus a full-time administrative assistant. The office is staffed six and a half days a week. The remaining half of a day is covered by two deputy coroners and two supervisors who remain on call. The Lehigh County Coroner's Office investigated 5,300 deaths in 2012.
Grim, a lifelong Allentown resident, began his career in law enforcement. Initially, he worked for the Macungie and Slatington police departments. In 1992, a job posting caught his eye; he was drawn to the challenge of working in the coroner's office. By 1993 he was a deputy coroner, and in 1995 he became a supervisor.
Possessing a strong background in investigative work, legal interpretation and crime scene analysis, Grim was elected to his first term as Lehigh County Coroner in 1997. He continues to find his job "... extremely interesting ..."
His team investigates approximately 97 percent of the deaths occurring in Lehigh County. Those not handled by the coroner's office usually involve terminally ill patients in hospitals and nursing homes with a physician in attendance.
To facilitate establishing the cause and manner of death, a coroner may issue subpoenas, convene inquests and order autopsies. Autopsies are performed by board certified forensic pathologists. Unlike a coroner, a medical examiner must be a doctor of medicine.
Another of the coroner's major functions is to determine the identity of a John or Jane Doe. If visual recognition is not an option, the coroner then enters the deceased's fingerprints into a national computer database. Should the prints be unusable or not on file, dental records may be subpoenaed. When a dental match is not possible, DNA testing is employed. However, neither a dental record nor DNA testing is of use if the investigator has no lead.
The coroner must know which dentist to contact for records or have a source with which to match DNA. Consequently, the office employs word of mouth, the victim's cell phone directory, mail, personal property, computer searches and local media to discover family and/or friends. Few persons remain forever anonymous; those who do are respectfully interred by the county. Currently, the Lehigh County Coroner's Office does not have any unidentified persons.
In addition, the coroner's office creates a record of each investigation. Grim emphasizes, unlike television portrayals, "It doesn't happen in 41 minutes."
A toxicology screening to disclose the presence of drugs (prescription and/or street) and alcohol may take up to 12 weeks. Additional testing must be done if poison is suspected.
All cremations require a coroner's authorization. Before approving a cremation, the coroner must review the death certificate to insure no questions exist about the cause and manner of death.
Lehigh County presents some unique situations because two trauma centers lie within its borders. When someone from another county dies at one of these facilities, Grim's team often coordinates with law enforcement officials and the district attorney of the county in which the incident occurred.
After completing an investigation, the coroner issues a death certificate which a funeral director finalizes. This document is permanently housed in the office of vital records in New Castle. For a coroner, this is not necessarily the last step. He may be subpoenaed to testify as an expert witness.
When asked how accurately programs like "CSI" portray the work he does, Grim points out some of the television technology does not exist.
Furthermore, his most difficult task is glossed over. In cases of unexpected death, the coroner is responsible for notifying the family. Although each member of Grim's team receives in-house training, no one is immune to grief. Delivering terrible news with tact and humanity is not romantic; it is necessary and at times painful.
Grim and his staff are not television stars. Their job is not glamorous, but it is deeply intriguing. To perform it well they are required to attend continuing educational classes to stay abreast of advances in forensics and to work hard at sometimes tedious tasks. Most importantly, they treat the dead with respect that comforts the living.