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  • Randy McGinley

Medical Examiners and Autopsies

From District Attorney Randy McGinley: The Chief Medical Examiner for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation put out a very informative video about autopsies and the findings that are made by medical examiners.

These findings are often reported by news organizations but with little or no explanation as to their meaning. Many of you have probably heard in the news that a medical examiner's office has determined a death to be a "homicide." As Dr. Eisenstat explains, this is a MEDICAL determination, not a LEGAL determination. It simply means that the death was caused by another person. But this determination alone does not make the death a criminal act.

News organizations will often treat this finding as "breaking news" even when the case involves a claim of self defense. When someone claims that they acted in self defense, they are admitting to causing the death. Therefore, the medical examiner determining that the death is a "homicide" in that situation should surprise no one. The medical examiner's finding has nothing to do with whether the death was justified (meaning the act would legally be considered self defense). The finding does not mean that the death was or was not a crime, including murder or manslaughter. It is merely a finding that the death was cause by another person.

The determination as to whether the person causing the death will face criminal charges is left to law enforcement and the district attorney's office based on the totality of the facts and circumstances. The autopsy can help in that decision. For example, the autopsy may show that the direction of the wounds that cause the death would not support a claim of self defense.

As Dr. Eisenstat also explains, the finding that a death was an "accident" does not mean that it was not a criminal act. Under Georgia law, if an individual is driving a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol or a drug, and this DUI causes the death of another person, that is vehicular homicide. This does not require proof that the death was intended by the person driving under the influence. In these situations, the "manner" of death would be classified as an "accident" by a medical examiner. However, it is crime, and a serious one.

There are countless other scenarios that a medical examiner's determination may not lead to a common sense conclusion as to whether there was a crime involved with the death. That is because those are two separate determinations. The medical examiner is ONLY making a medical determination as to the cause of death, NOT a legal determination.

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