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While there are guidelines governing coroner involvement in a death investigation, each case is handled individually. Generally, the Franklin County Coroner's Office (FCCO) will be contacted by law enforcement or medical personnel when a person has died suddenly and with no clear explanation or under suspicious circumstances. The FCCO may be involved in varying degrees, depending on the circumstances.
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The FCCO involvement may be extensive or minimal, depending on the case. During a full death investigation, the FCCO will respond to a death scene, take photos and video, interview witnesses, gather evidence and samples associated with the decedent, record measurements, record body parameters, and transport the body to the morgue. Following the scene investigation, the FCCO will contact next of kin, request medical and other pertinent records, conduct an autopsy, submit toxicology samples, complete the investigation with a comprehensive report, and if requested, discuss this report with the family. In addition, certain cases may dictate radiographs, computer simulations, total scene documentation, and clinical pathology analysis. Forensic specialists, such as anthropologists and odontologists, may be called in as necessary.
The FCCO has set up a framework from which the decision to autopsy is made by FCCO. Actual situations may require a variance from this outline. Autopsies may be required due to circumstance or age; autopsy by circumstance always overrides autopsy by age. An autopsy will be performed for any death surrounded by suspicious circumstances including any possibility of homicide, suicide, accident, occupational hazard contributing to the cause of death as well as any death occurring while the decedent was in custody and any stillborn with the possibility of neglect or criminality.
A full death investigation can take several months, depending on the nature of the death. This can be frustrating for the family and friends of the decedent because they want closure with their case. While we work expeditiously to complete each case we must rely on outside agencies for some of our work, like toxicology, which requires extra time.
Next of kin is recognized in the State of Washington in the following order; spouse, adult children (over 18 years of age), parents, siblings, and then grandparents.
Our determinations are held to the level of preponderance. This means that we must have more than 50% probability to make a determination of the cause and manner of death.
Death investigation reports have been maintained by the FCCO since the inception of the office. We will continue to maintain a report on every FCCO case indefinitely. Immediate family can have access to our report but may be required to show proof of relationship.
Immediate family, law enforcement having jurisdiction, prosecutor's office having jurisdiction, attending medical personnel, and in certain cases public health officials and labor and industry representatives. Insurance companies and attorneys do not have direct access to our reports and must be authorized by the family of the decedent.
The Franklin County Coroner's Office does not provide certified death certificates to families. Although we keep a photocopy of the death certificate, certified copies cannot be ordered through our office. We are one step in the process of completing the final death certificate. The completed death certificates are filed with the Benton Franklin Health Department. Death Certificates can be ordered at Vital Records.