Views expressed in this blog are mine alone and are not intended to represent Williamson County policy nor intended as legal advice.
Death is a part of life. Most of us try to avoid thinking about this essential fact, but it comes for us all. When it comes for you or someone you love and circumstances dictate law enforcement involvement, this is when I, as a Justice of the Peace, get involved.
The Code of Criminal Procedure outlines eight times that an inquest is required to be performed by a Justice of the Peace: 1. The person dies in prison or in jail (unless dies of natural causes and attended by a physician or lawful execution). 2. The person dies an unnatural death from a cause other than a legal execution; 3. A body (or part of a body) is found and the cause or circumstances of the death is unknown. The body may be unidentified. 4. A death that might have been caused by unlawful means (for example, murder). 5. Suicide is (or may be) the cause of death. 6. The person dies without having been attended by a physician. 7. The person dies while attended by a physician who is unable to certify the cause of death. 8. The person is a child younger than six years of age and the death was unexpected (except for a neoplastic disease) or abuse or neglect are suspected.
Sounds intimidating, no? As a JP, I am required by law to determine cause and manner of death in the above circumstances. If someone dies at home without a physician present, also known as an unattended death, I’ll be called. If they’ve come to the emergency room and pass within 24 hours of admittance a physician cannot certify cause of death and I’ll be called. Motor vehicle accidents, suspected suicide or drug overdose, and homicide will all result in a call to my cell phone from Wilco dispatch. Any child under the age of 6 who dies unattended, no matter the cause, and I will get a call.
Determining the cause and manner of death can be as simple as a discussion with law enforcement over the phone. In the above incidences, police are called. They talk to witnesses, family members and health professionals as practical to gather evidence. Then they call me. Sometimes, I can get the information I need from this call to decide if an autopsy needs to be called. I do this a lot with hospital deaths within that 24-hour time frame I mentioned. Cause of death can usually be determined from hospital records and an autopsy is not necessary.
Making the decision to perform an autopsy is sometimes very clear. In a recent inquest training I attended, one of the judges teaching called it “the rule of sides” or roadside, homicide, suicide. Pretty self-explanatory. He calls for an autopsy whenever he suspects homicide or suicide or death occurs at a roadside (motor vehicle accidents, pedestrian vs. vehicle, etc.).
Every JP is different and gets to make the decision on cause and manner and need for an autopsy on their own. We get training from the Texas Justice Training Center in our initial training. We can take further training in inquests for our annual training requirements if we want. What we don’t generally have is medical training. We rely on law enforcement and medical examiners to help us. Developing a strong relationship with our local agencies is therefore essential.
When an inquest is needed, there are some basic things to understand about the process. Depending on the nature of the call, law enforcement may be on scene for many hours. Their investigation into the death begins once a medical professional declares a person dead. They may be first on scene or arrive after EMS, but they will likely be there long after they leave. It’s not unusual for detectives and crime scene techs to be at a scene for upwards of 4 hours. In complex scenes that can easily be double or triple that length of time. I get called once the initial evaluation is complete. They’ll likely speak to family and witnesses, get a brief from EMS or medical professionals at the hospital and examine the scene for clues before calling the JP. Often, close examination of the body waits until I arrive on scene.
In the call from emergency services, I generally get a name, a location, and a time of death and a brief description of events. This helps me decide if I need to be on scene. I then contact the law enforcement lead, either in person or by phone, for more information. I’ll get date of birth, next of kin information, medical history and a description of the events leading up to death and a description of the scene. I’ll discuss the officer’s impression of the scene – are there drugs present, were witnesses or family present and what was their demeanor, how was the body found, and so on. From this discussion, I decide if I believe an autopsy is needed. From there, I’ll contact a funeral home for transport to Travis County ME, who is my next call. I’ve rarely called the Travis County ME’s office and could answer every single one of their questions. Sometimes that’s because the answer is unknown. Sometimes it’s because it was something I didn’t know to ask.
After the ME is involved, you can expect to have the body of your loved one released within 48-72 hours once the initial examination is complete. The final report, however, will take anywhere from 6 to 8 weeks to be sent to my office. In cases of suspected abuse or homicide, that timetable is open and depends upon law enforcement needs. A standard autopsy examines the body to determine cause of death. A standard toxicology screen is also done that looks for certain drugs, regardless of suspected cause of death. Don’t be surprised to see a blood test for heroin or other drugs even in when the cause of death is medical in nature – heart disease, stroke, etc. It’s part of the standard testing.
Once I receive the autopsy report, I file an amended death report to the Texas department of vital statistics. The initial death report will list cause of death as pending and is usually filed within 2-3 days after death. The amended report will note cause and manner as found in the autopsy. (In those cases where I do not call for an autopsy, there is no amendment and I list cause and manner as I’ve determined.) The amended report is sent to the funeral home of record for review and they release the record to the county clerk for final certification.
As always, I believe knowing what to expect helps reduces anxiety. I try, when speaking with families, to explain the basics and give them some idea of how long they will have to wait for a death certificate and why I believe there needs to be an autopsy. I hope this more detailed explanation of the process has been helpful. Feel free to ask me any questions you may have.