Record Of Inquest As Evidence
Civil Actions In general, evidence given at an inquest has not been permitted to be used against either party in a civil action. There are, however, exceptions to this rule. Some authorities hold the testimony of a witness before a coroner to be admissible if used to contradict other testimony given when the person is a witness or party in such an action. Other jurisdictions hold that such evidence by a party is admissible as an admission against interest. For example, a defendant's admission at an inquest of driving at an unlawful speed was admissible as an admission against interest in a civil action for negligence.
Some jurisdictions allow the coroner's findings to be used in a civil action to show the cause of death. The general practice in most jurisdictions,
however, is to allow the verdict to show that the deceased is dead but not to show the cause of death. The rationale underlying this rule is that a person is not entitled to be represented by counsel at an inquest since it is merely a preliminary investigation. The practical consequences of allowing the coroner's verdict to be used as evidence of the cause of death is that it could easily become the key piece of evidence in the action. If this were to occur, the judgment awarded in the case would probably end up being a ratification or formal adoption of the coroner's verdict, thereby depriving the party to the action of his or her rights. That person is entitled to a formal judicial hearing or a "day in court," with all procedural safeguards, so that an opportunity to dispute the evidence will be given.
Criminal Prosecutions The main purpose of a coroner's inquest is to provide information and evidence for use by the police in their investigation and detection of a crime; therefore, the proceedings of an inquest are generally inadmissible at a trial for homicide.
When a person is either under arrest or accused of a crime at a coroner's inquest, any testimony that he or she gives cannot subsequently be used against him or her at a trial that stems from the inquest, unless such testimony was given voluntarily after the party was advised of his or her constitutional rights. If an individual testifies as a witness at an inquest but is subsequently prosecuted, that testimony is admissible in his or her prosecution since it was voluntarily given at the inquest. Generally, the testimony of witnesses at an inquest cannot be used in a trial for homicide unless the witness has died or is otherwise unavailable at the time of the criminal prosecution.
Ordinarily, on an indictment for homicide, neither the verdict of the coroner's jury nor the finding of the coroner can be used as evidence for any purpose.