The purpose of an inquest is to gather evidence that may be used by the police in their exploration of a violent or suspicious death and the subsequent prosecution of a person if death ensued from a criminal act.
An inquest is not a trial but rather a criminal proceeding of a preliminary, investigatory nature. It is not a criminal prosecution but may result in the discovery of facts justifying one.
Statutes mandate that whenever there exists reasonable ground to believe that a death resulted from violence, unlawful means, or other mysterious or unknown causes, an inquest must be held. Death by disease, natural causes, NEGLIGENCE of the deceased, accident, or suicide does not warrant the commencement of an inquest, unless statute so requires.
A coroner should not arbitrarily or capriciously hold an inquest. The presumption is that when a coroner decides to hold an inquest it is made in exercise of his or her sound discretion, in GOOD FAITH, and for sufficient cause. Most statutes require that a coroner make a preliminary inquiry into the cause of death before summoning a jury.
Time and Place The general requirement is that an inquest be held immediately upon the notice to the coroner of the death or discovery of the dead body. The inquest may either take place in the territory of the coroner in whose jurisdiction the body was found or where the death itself took place.
Summoning and Swearing the Jury If it is public knowledge that the decedent was killed by someone who is already in police custody, then it is not necessary to summon a jury to hold an inquest. A coroner's jury is usually summoned by warrant but may be summoned personally by the coroner. A juror who refuses to attend an inquest may be subject to a fine and a CONTEMPT citation. The general practice is that the jury should be sworn in in the presence of the body.
Autopsy Incident to the coroner's duties is the power to order an autopsy when appropriate and essential to ascertain the circumstances and the nature of death. The reasons underlying this power are numerous—the primary one being that a thorough examination of a body is necessary since an accused person may be acquitted if there is some doubt as to the cause of death. Similarly, a proper examination of the cause of death should exclude all other possible causes that would not support a criminal investigation and subsequent prosecution.
Some statutes provide that a coroner is not authorized to hold an autopsy where no suspicion of foul play exists or where no inquest is being held. A needless autopsy may be considered unreasonable interference with a dead body. If authorized, however, a coroner may hold an autopsy without the consent of the decedent's next of kin. Civil liability may be imposed upon coroners and their physicians who perform improper or unauthorized autopsies.
To examine the body during an autopsy, a coroner may hire an expert physician, the selection of whom is within the coroner's discretion. This power must be exercised with great caution. During the autopsy, the coroner has the discretionary power to decide who, if anyone, should be present aside from the surgeon or surgeons. Neither a person accused of criminally causing the death nor the jurors have a right to witness the actual dissection of the cadaver.
View of Body Statutes require that the coroner and jury together must have a view of the body except in cases where the body cannot be found or is too decomposed for view. The purpose of this inspection is to ascertain from the appearance of the body how the death was caused. The jury also hears the summaries of various medical reports regarding the condition of the body to help it reach its determinations concerning the cause of death.
Verdict and Inquisition It is the duty of the coroner to accept from the jury the verdict, which should identify the deceased, if possible, or state that the deceased is unknown and should include how, when, and where the decedent died. The coroner submits a return of inquest, also known as an inquisition, which is a record of the jury's finding, that must be executed in accordance with statutory requirements.
The effect of the verdict at common law is that it is a sufficient basis for prosecution for murder or MANSLAUGHTER so long as the jury finds evidence supporting prosecution. Under some statutes, its effect is not as strong as a finding by a GRAND JURY but has merely been held to render a person accused of illegally causing the death liable to arrest.
Many jurisdictions require that the coroner complete a certificate of death showing the cause and probable manner of death subsequent to the termination of the inquest.