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How to Dispute a Manner of Death Determination

From time to time people write to ask what to do if a death is ruled an accident or suicide, and they think it’s a homicide. This is not my area of expertise, but I will post what I know and hope that experts will chime in with more advice. 

Who Determines the Cause and Manner of Death? 

It’s different from state to state, but basically, the medical examiner determines the cause and manner of death. Cause is a medical distinction, ie, blunt force trauma or strangulation. Manner is a legal one, like homicide or suicide or accidental, and this is what people typically dispute.

Step 1 

If you are a family member, you are entitled to all the autopsy records from the medical examiner. The first step would be to get the records and discuss the decision with the medical examiner (or coroner) who made it. 

Step 2 

If you are not happy after your discussion with the medical examiner, your next best option is to hire an independent pathologist. I’ve never hired a pathologist myself, so I don’t know how much they cost. According to a New York Times article, the price can go from $3,000 to $5,000 for an autopsy, but it will be less if they are only reviewing medical records and the records of an autopsy already done, which might be all you need.

The College of American Pathologists has a list of pathologists who will perform autopsies here. This organization should also be able to direct you to pathologists in your area: The American Academy of Forensic Science.

There’s also a Forensic Science Technician website which lists forensic science degree programs around the country. You might be able to find a pathologist either through that website or by contacting one of the programs listed there. 

The patholgist will look over the autopsy report and make his or her own determination. It’s like going to another doctor for a second opinion. Presumably the pathologist will also know the ins and outs of the politics and procedures in your city/state and can advise you on how to proceed from there.

The Vidocq Society 

If money is an issue, there’s The Vidocq Society, a voluntary organization that looks into unsolved murders. But I don’t know how helpful they will be for cases that have not yet been classified as homicides, and there’s also the issue of workload. Unfortunately there are untold thousands of unsolved homicides in this country. 

But you can go to their website for their guidelines.