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SUDDEN DEATH INVESTIGATIONS

OFFICE OF THE MEDICAL INVESTIGATOR

The New Mexico Medical Investigator

In the state of New Mexico, when a person's death is unexpected and the cause of death in not immediately known or when the death is the result of violence due to an accident, suicide or homicide, it will be investigated by the Office of the Medical Investigator. New Mexico has a statewide medical examiner system, with specially trained investigators in every community. Many in the state refer to the Office as the OMI.

Why are Investigations Necessary?

Investigations allow a collection of facts surrounding all unnatural or unexplained deaths. Sometimes the facts will allow the medical investigator to close the case and have the private physician file the death certificate. There are many aspects to unexpected deaths, and the medical investigator's office is empowered by legislative statue to determine cause and manner of death. In addition, the OMI is responsible for determining relationships to environmental hazards, job safety violations, consumer product dangers, public health threats, and for providing evidence in criminal matters and other judicial proceedings.

What Happens During an Investigation?

The investigation will start at the location of the death. Specially trained medical investigators will be called in by the police. The investigator will talk to family members, witnesses and others, work with the police in identifying features of the death, obtain medical histories and records, and photograph the scene of the death. The investigator will authorize the removal of the body to a location where an examination will be conducted.

Can the Medical Investigator Conduct an Investigation into a Death That Occurred Months Ago?

Sometimes the Office of the Medical Investigator will open an investigation because the death certificate prepared by a private physician is incomplete. If the death certificate has to be corrected, the Medical Investigator can prepare a new certificate and file it for the family.

When Will an Autopsy be Necessary?

In about one third of the cases investigated by the Medical Investigator and autopsy will be required. The primary concern is to determine whether death resulted from disease, from injury, or from a combination of disease and injury. When death results from physical injuries, the autopsy frequently provides a means to reconstruct the fatal episode. The autopsy also serves to provide information in the case of unidentified persons. Sometimes there is no other way to determine these things except by performing an autopsy.

What is an Autopsy?

An autopsy is a dignified surgical procedure, which provides a systematic examination of the body of a deceased person by a qualified physician. The body is inspected for the presence of disease or injury, and minute specimens of the vital organs and/or body fluids may be taken for toxicologic and other analyses. The internal organs and the brain will be examined. The organs are replaced in the body for burial.

How Long Does an Autopsy Take?

A standard forensic autopsy will take two to three hours. Complicated medical cases, or cases of traumatic deaths with multiple injuries, can take longer in order to fully document all observations. All autopsies in New Mexico are done at the Medical Investigator facility at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine in Albuquerque. The time involved in transporting cases to Albuquerque must be considered when funeral services are planned.

Does the Family Pay for Any Medical Investigator Services?

Families pay nothing for Medical Investigator services or for the transportation to Albuquerque for autopsy. Families may be billed for the transportation to the funeral home they select.

What if Objections to the Autopsy are Raised?

When family members object to an autopsy based upon religious, cultural or other beliefs, every effort to honor that objection will be made. However, if the public responsibility cannot be fulfilled with out performing the autopsy, the family will be provided an opportunity to be represented by legal counsel and to have their objection presented to a judge before the autopsy is performed, whenever possible.

Are tests for drugs and alcohol performed?

In all cases investigated by the Medical Investigator, including those where autopsies are not conducted, fluids are taken for toxicological tests. The results of the tests are often important factors in being able to determine a cause and manner of death i.e., suicide by drug overdose, and in providing motives and explanations for behaviors (alcohol levels in fatal motor vehicle accidents). In New Mexico, these tests are performed at the State Laboratory in Albuquerque.

How are findings of the investigation made available?

If the cause of death was unclear, or family members had specific questions, the investigator or the pathologist will telephone a family member as soon as that information is available. This can be following the autopsy (as in the cases of SIDS), or following toxicologic or other studies. In all cases, the death certificate will be signed at the conclusion of the investigation. The cause of the death and the manner of the death will be on the certificate. Formal reports are available usually six to eight weeks after the final diagnosis has been made, although some may take longer. Instructions on how to obtain copies of the death certificate or the formal reports appear at the end of this document.

Can a Medical Investigator case still be an organ or tissue donor?

Yes. Once family members have expressed interest, the Lions Eye Bank and New Mexico Donor Program coordinators work closely with the Medical Investigator, and will review the appropriateness of the organ harvest with the Medical Investigator before allowing family members to formally consent to the donation. Donations are accepted from individuals on respirators and declared brain dead, as well as those who die suddenly. Procedures to obtain organs and tissue are done within hospital operating rooms, and not at the Medical Investigators office. Being a victim of homicide or other traumatic death does not preclude being a donor. All cases for organ donation require family consent.

How are the bodies identified?

Family members are not asked to view bodies at the Medical Investigator's Office. Often identification has taken place at the scene of the death. In cases where individuals remain unidentified, or where identification is difficult because of the condition of the body, fingerprints, dental records, and body X-rays are used, in addition to the autopsy evidence, to identify a person.

What if no one claims the body?

The law provides for burials when no relative claims the body. These matters are handled through the county finance office in the county where the death occurred. In New Mexico, an unclaimed body may not be cremated.

What if a family has no money for burial or cremation?

The county finance office in the county where the death occurred can evaluate the circumstances and determine if an indigent burial can be provided. In cases of citizens of Mexico, the Mexican Consulate in El Paso, Texas, can assist in arranging transportation back to Mexico.

When will the body be released?

Once the examination is complete, and a family has designated an arrangement for release, the body will be released. This is usually to a mortuary or cremation service, but can be directly to the family. Family members must instruct the funeral home to call the Office of the Medical Investigator for release of the body.

How can a family have the body released directly to them?

In New Mexico, family members can transport deceased family members and can conduct burials on private family lands. Refrigeration or embalming must take place, and restrictions exist on where burials may take place. The Office of the Medical Investigator can assist with these questions.

What happens to the clothing and personal items on the person at the time of their death?

All clothing and personal items are held by the Office of the Medical Investigator and released with the body to the funeral home or crematory, unless it is identified as evidence. Any item identified as evidence will be turned over to the investigating law enforcement agency.

REPORTS OF THE OFFICE OF THE MEDICAL INVESTIGATOR

What Kinds of Reports are Produced?

The Office of the Medical Investigator produces three reports. Those are the Autopsy Report, or External Examination report, the Report Finding, and the Toxicology Report. Although the death certificate is signed by the Medical Investigator, the document is finalized and distributed through the Bureau of Vital Statistics.

How Soon are Reports Available?

A Report of Finding is a one-page report that contains the same information that is placed on the death certificate. It is created within one week from the time a death certificate is signed. The Autopsy Report and the Toxicology Report can take 8 to 12 weeks to be final.

Are the Medical Investigator Reports Needed to File Insurance Claims?

Although some insurance companies may require an Autopsy Report, usually the copy of the death certificate that the family members obtain from the Bureau of Vital Statistics is sufficient.

Who can get copies of the reports?

The reports are considered public documents. Family members, law enforcement officials and the district attorney are provided with documents at no cost. Special governmental agencies and the hospital providing treatment prior to the death can also receive copies of the records. A small fee is charged to other agencies and individuals.

How are the reports obtained?

Any individual or agency requesting a report must send a written request to the Office of the Medical Investigator, University of New Mexico, School of Medicine, Albuquerque, NM 87131-5091. Specific information on fees, where appropriate, can be obtained by calling Albuquerque, 277-0728. The filing of the death certificate is usually managed by the funeral home or crematory handling the arrangements for the family. Copies are provided, for a fee, by the Bureau of Vital Statistics, P.O. Box 968, Santa Fe, NM 87504.

A Special Message to Family Members:

The Office of the Medical Investigator is required by law to be involved in the investigations described in this brochure. It is important that you realize our agency has made its own commitment to you to assist in whatever way we can during the difficult times that will follow the death of your loved one. Our primary mission is to provide you with accurate and timely information about the conditions of the death, in order that you can understand what happened and share it with other family members and friends. Our commitment to you has led to the creation of special grief counseling services. Bereavement specialists are available to talk to you, particularly if the death has been of a child.

Office of the Medical Investigator
Office hours are 9AM to 5PM

Information: 272-3053
Bereavement: 272-2485

Answering Service Non-business Hours: 256-4695

Taken from brochure: Sudden Death
                                    Office Of The Medical Investigator

"Someone I Love Was Murdered"

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