The function of the coroner’s office is to determine cause, manner and circumstance of death under the Georgia Death Investigation Act. The coroner is elected at large to a four year term.
The coroner is required to investigate when a person dies:
- As a result of violence
- By suicide or casualty
- Suddenly when in apparent good health
- When unattended by a physician
- In any suspicious or unusual manner, with particular attention to those persons 16 years of age and under.
- After birth but before seven years of age if the death is unexpected or unexplained.
- As a result of an execution carried out pursuant to the death penalty
- When an inmate of a state hospital or a state, county, or city penal institution
- After having been admitted to a hospital in an unconscious state and without regaining consciousness within 24 hours of admission.
Coroners may pronounce someone dead under certain conditions at the scene of death. Coroners must authorize a release of bodies before they can be cremated, transported across the state line or autopsied.
The Coroner’s Office is part of the judicial system and has the power of subpoena. The coroner’s office may conduct court in the form of an inquest to help determine cause of death and the outcome may be used for criminal procedures. The coroner is often called upon as a witness in criminal court.
Autopsies are not mandatory to determine cause of death except in situations where death cannot be reasonably explained, or the death is a child under the age of 7. In 1990, the Georgia General Assembly enacted legislation that required each county in the state to establish a committee to develop local protocols to prevent child abuse. These “Child Abuse Protocol Committees” were also instructed to review unexpected or unexplained deaths of children under the age of 18, determine if any could have been prevented, and to make recommendations to prevent future child deaths. The coroner serves on this committee.
There are five determinations for manner of death:
- Homicide – the death was caused by the actions of another person.
- Natural – the death was from diseases or medical conditions such as cancer or heart attack.
- Accidental – an unintended death
- Suicide – a death that is intentionally self-inflicted
- Undetermined – there is little or no evidence to establish, with medical
Many people, including the media, confuse the terms homicide and murder. Murder is a criminal charge or the unlawful taking of a human life by another. After the coroner determines the manner of death to be a homicide, then law enforcement investigate that death to determine if there is probable cause to bring the criminal charge of murder against the person who caused the death. While all murders are homicides, not all homicides are murders. If a homeowner, fearful for his or her life, kills an intruder or a law enforcement officer kills someone in the line of duty, both are considered homicides but not necessarily murder.
Before they can take office, all coroners are required to attend a 40-hour course offered by the Georgia Police Academy at the Georgia Pubic Safety Training Center in Forsyth and receive 24 hours of in-service training each year on various death investigation procedures.