Standards of Practice for Medical Examiners Developed by MSU-Sparrow Center of Excellence for Forensic Science and Medicine

  • David Foran, Ph.D.
  • Associate Professor
  • Director, Forensic Science Program
  • School of Criminal Justice
  • College of Social Science
David Foran, Ph.D.

As the director of MSU's Forensic Science Program, Dr. David Foran heads up the oldest continually functioning educational degree program in forensic science in the United States. Researchers and students in Michigan State University's program, which began in 1946, have participated in rapid and profound advances in the field of forensic science.

Dr. Foran leads a discipline that employs the principles of chemistry, biology, math, social science theory, law, and justice. As the program description states, forensic science is "the application of the methods of science to legal matters." His research and teaching intersect with complex issues that often go beyond discovery and application of scientific knowledge. One of Foran's current endeavors is a collaboration that addresses the challenges and uneven practices of medical examiners in Michigan.

The MSU-Sparrow Center of Excellence for Forensic Science and Medicine is a partnership centered on scientific excellence, consistent application of evidence-based policies and practices, and gaps in the profession that affect death investigations and, ultimately, the legal process.

Through a $442,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice, Foran and his partners from Sparrow Health System Forensic Pathology Services in Lansing, Michigan have created training for medical examiners and coroners that focuses on guidelines, standards, and best practices. Training sessions are scheduled for early summer and late fall in 2011, the latter during the Michigan Association of Medical Examiners' annual meeting.

One significant topic is inconsistency among investigations and services. Medical examiners in Michigan are appointed by county commission boards and while there are professional standards, there are no requirements for uniform county-by-county accreditation or service oversight.

"The funders selected our grant application in part because Michigan reflects a wide and varied population. Our counties range from urban to rural, with differing degrees of crime activity. In each instance, a product such as a toolkit that documents best practices, guidelines and resources would increase the quality of service medical examiners are able to provide to families and law enforcement," Foran said.

Joyce DeJong, one of Foran's collaborating colleagues, is the medical director of forensic pathology at Sparrow Health System and medical examiner or deputy medical examiner for seven Michigan counties. Her program is accredited by the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME), with standards designed to develop and maintain superior quality death investigations. There are only seven Michigan counties currently accredited by NAME.

"Forensic pathologists at Sparrow Forensic Pathology routinely consult the various forensic scientists at Michigan State University," said DeJong. "Typically, these consultations are very case-based; that is, we need an answer to a specific question. What often happens, however, is the question on a given case will identify a gap in the current understanding of certain areas of forensic science. When these gaps are identified, the MSU forensic scientists will develop a research project that addresses the issue. In addition, the forensic pathologists participate with the MSU Forensic Science Program by providing guest lectures covering topics within the field of forensic pathology."

DeJong is not aware of any other training program that specifically educates medical examiners about the existing national standards of care that apply to death investigation, and acknowledges Foran's work: "Dr. Foran is extremely active in all aspects of the interactions between his program and Sparrow Forensic Pathology. He recognizes and addresses areas that require additional research to benefit forensic pathology"

The collaboration with Sparrow Health System contributes to the strength of the training program designed by the team working with Foran and DeJong. MSU researchers will present best practices based on their expertise in topics such as: forensic biology (DNA analysis), forensic chemistry (time of death, cause of death), forensic anthropology (analysis and identification of skeletal remains), and forensic entomology (insect analysis in crime scene investigations). DeJong and colleagues will focus on best practices and available resources for county medical examiners, including content in a toolkit that can be referenced during death investigations.

Victor A. Fitz, Cass County prosecuting attorney in southwest Michigan, has been a prosecutor for 28 years. He has prosecuted thousands of violent crimes, including more than 100 homicide cases.

"Twenty-first century forensic science is critical to an effective homicide investigation. All parties, including defendants and the families of victims, rightfully expect appropriate scientific testing. Jurors demand it. Medical examiners and forensic pathologists perform work that often helps determine guilt or innocence regarding the most serious of all crimes. We anticipate and expect the highest standards in every report," Fitz said.

Despite the contemporary popularity of television shows and novels that feature sensational and exciting crime-solving through forensic evidence, the work requires extensive knowledge, procedural discipline, and rigorous standards.

"The trainings are a beginning," said Foran. "We want every Michigan county to participate in developing a set of best practices but we will continue to identify how best to apply our knowledge and expertise for medical examiners and coroners across the country. We hope that we can provide essential education and information, during an era of limited budgets and resources, for local medical examiners and their employees."

  • Written by Carla Hills, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photograph by Paul Phipps, University Outreach and Engagement

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