Forensics, or forensic science, involves the application of scientific methodology in gathering information to be used in a court of law. Forensic comes from the Latin, forum, which in Roman culture was the public place for political discussion or debate. Today, what we call “forensics” includes information from a broad range of scientific specialties, including botany, entomology, serology, ballistics, and even psychological analyses.
Modern day forensics gained traction from the scientific advancements in the late 19th and early 20thcenturies. But did you know that the very first forensics textbook was written by a Chinese man named Sung Tz’u all the way back in the 12th Century? Concerned that the wrong people might be blamed for crimes, he wrote a book called “The Washing Away of Unjust Imputations.” It contained detailed information about matching evidence with criminals. His “cause of death” methodologies included primitive forensics—rates of decomposition, appearance of the body, etc. Sung Tz’u struck a blow for truth and justice all those many years ago!
Cause of death has always been a question for investigators, but around 925 A.D. in England the government got involved. Some deaths were subject to taxation by the Crown—proving death and taxes are inextricably linked. The king’s “crowners” both confirmed the cause of death and collected the appropriate taxes. Political appointees, they were the forerunners of today’s coroners.
These days, in the United States, the cause of death is established by either a coroner or a medical examiner, depending on the jurisdiction. Medical examiners are M.D.s, usually with specialized training. Anyone can be a coroner—they are either appointed or elected.
What’s it like where you live? Do you have a coroner or a medical examiner?