- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 18, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - North Dakota should modernize its death investigation system and refrain from relying on non-medical personnel to act as coroners in counties across the state, a lawmaker said Tuesday.

Doctors are county coroners in only 23 of the state’s 53 counties. Other counties rely on nurses, funeral directors, law enforcement, and even an emergency manager to certify cause of deaths.

Sen Judy Lee, R-West Fargo, said deaths in the state deserve a look from a trained medical investigator to better determine whether foul play is responsible.

“Sometimes death investigations aren’t as obvious as a bullet to the head,” Lee told The Associated Press.

Lee is the chairwoman of the interim Human Services Committee, which met Tuesday at the state Capitol to discuss improving death investigations in the state. Suggestions from the committee could end up in proposed legislation when the Legislature reconvenes in 2017.

Dr. Mary Ann Sens, a forensic pathologist and professor at the University of North Dakota, told the committee that North Dakota at statehood 125 years ago had one of the “premier” death investigation systems in the nation, with doctors acting as coroners in the counties.

The state no longer has the “best system,” she said.

North Dakota for decades relied solely on county coroners to determine causes of death, and most had little if any training in criminal investigations. The state hired its first medical examiner in 1996, after a national search that lasted more than two years. The job involves investigating suspicious deaths, performing autopsies, advising local coroners and law enforcement officers and providing training for death investigations.

North Dakota averages 16 deaths daily, or more than 5,800 annually. The state’s few doctors trained in forensic pathology, a specialty that focuses on whether foul play is responsible for a death, aren’t alerted to every case, and some deaths, including homicides, may slip through the cracks, Lee and Sens said.

The number of autopsies in the state has been increasing along with the state’s rising population. During the 2013-2015 budget cycle, exactly 1,000 autopsies were performed in the state, up from 764 in the previous biennium.

The state began contracting with the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences in two years ago to perform autopsies in 21 counties the eastern part of the state. The move was done to lessen the workload for Dr. William Massello, the state medical examiner in Bismarck.

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