Medicolegal Death Investigator

When someone dies from unknown causes, law enforcement is required to perform an investigation. Determining the cause of death is the responsibility of the coroner or medical examiner.

However, a medicolegal death investigator is often called to the death scene to perform an onsite investigation and help determine if a criminal case should be opened or not. Once on the scene, medicolegal death investigators are typically the most knowledgeable medical professional and are responsible for the body. They perform essential duties such as removing and releasing the body, documenting everything related to the body and interviewing witnesses.

This job is not for the faint of heart. Professionals in this field must be comfortable with all forms of death, including gruesome and violent ones. There are no formal requirements for entering this field, although most professionals have completed education post-high school.

Successful medicolegal death investigators combine medical training, law enforcement experience, and knowledge of the local, state, and federal laws. While there are no state licensing requirements for this field, most professionals earn certification through the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMI).

Medicolegal death investigators are classified as forensic science technicians by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2020). On average, forensic science technicians earn $63,170 per year. This career has a lot of growth potential, with an estimated 14 percent increase in jobs nationally in this field between 2019 and 2029. This increase is primarily due to the increase in forensic technology and techniques requiring trained professionals. Continue reading to learn more about this unique career, including various programs of study, job duties, and even associated careers.

Medicolegal Death Investigator Specializations & Degree Types

A medicolegal death investigation is a specialization in and of itself. Entering this field requires a balance of medical and investigative knowledge obtained through education and work experience.

Typical degrees professionals in this field earn are graduate degrees in medicolegal death investigation, pathology, criminal justice, criminal investigation, forensics, psychology, or even anthropology. There are also medicolegal death investigator training programs that are one to five days long for professionals in this field who need further education or to meet continuing education requirements.

Admissions Requirements for Medicolegal Death Investigator Programs

Admission requirements for medicolegal death investigator programs vary widely. Associate degrees—which may a starting point for the career—typically have very low or no admission requirements other than a minimum age. Bachelor’s programs will often require a GED or high school diploma as well as a minimum GPA and SAT scores. Graduate certificate and master’s programs will require applicants to have already completed a bachelor’s degree, and many sometimes require work experience in this field.

Medicolegal Death Investigator Program Accreditation

Ensuring a program is accredited is essential as it guarantees a minimum level of quality in faculty, facilities, and curriculum. Attending an accredited program also makes transferring between schools easier as other institutions accept the credits. Currently, there are no programmatic accrediting bodies for medicolegal death investigator programs, so students should ensure their program holds at least a regional accreditation.

Regional accreditation organizations are:

  • Western Association of Schools and Colleges
  • Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE)
  • Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU)
  • Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • WASC Senior College and University Commission (WSCUC)

On-Campus Medicolegal Death Investigator Degree Programs

Bossier Parish Community College

The associate of applied science in criminal justice, medicolegal death investigation concentration at Bossier Parish Community College is a two-year program that prepares graduates for either entry-level work or for continuing criminal justice studies. Students are required to take classes such as accidental death investigation, pathophysiology, and medical ethics.

Graduates of this unique program are prepared for registry level exams administered by the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators. Bossier Parish Community College has an open admission policy, which means any student over the age of 16 may attend and take classes.

  • Location: Bossier City, LA
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Tuition: $8,842 per year

Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis – School of Science

The bachelor’s of science in forensic biology at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis’ School of Science is a four-year program that prepares graduates for a variety of investigative careers, including one as a medicolegal death investigator. Upon completion of this program, students may need to pursue additional medical training or education, but they will have the necessary investigative skills for this profession.

Required coursework includes biology, chemistry, physics, and math. Students are also warned that this course of study and profession can be challenging emotionally, given the often violent nature of the crimes investigated.

  • Location: Indianapolis, IN
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Tuition: $30,710 per year

Syracuse University – College of Arts and Sciences

Students can earn a master’s of science in medicolegal death investigation at Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences. This comprehensive master’s program prepares students to enter this specialized career. Students can participate in field studies in medical examiner’s offices and work directly with a faculty mentor who has extensive experience in this field.

Skills students learn as part of this program include case investigation, interviewing, securing evidence, courtroom testimony, and identifying pathologies. Admission requirements include holding a bachelor’s degree, letters of recommendation, statement of purpose, a current resume, a completed application, and GRE scores.

  • Location: Syracuse, NY
  • Duration: One-and-a-half to two years
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education
  • Tuition: $30,294 per year

Washburn University  

While Washburn University offers a bachelor’s degree in forensic anthropology, the Forensic Anthropology Recovery Unit’s training courses are far more pertinent to medicolegal death investigators.

These training courses range from one to five days and train law enforcement officers, other professionals, and students. Courses offered include estimating a biological profile, fatal fire recoveries, and human bone identification. These specialized courses can provide aspiring professionals with the additional skills they need to enter this career or can fulfill continuing education requirements for practicing medicolegal death investigators.

  • Location: Topeka, KS
  • Duration: Varies
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Tuition: $702 per credit

Saint Louis University School of Medicine

The department of pathology at the Saint Louis University School of Medicine offers a four- or five-day medicolegal death investigator training. The focus of these courses is to train attendees on conducting thorough death scene investigations to assist medical examiners or coroners.

The courses are specifically designed for professionals who already work in medicolegal offices but are not yet investigators themselves. This program is offered twice per year and is only offered in person. 

  • Location: St. Louis, MO
  • Duration: Four or five days
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Tuition: $850

Online or Hybrid Medicolegal Death Investigator Degree Programs

Duquesne University – School of Nursing

Registered nurses who want to become a medicolegal death investigator can complete an online master’s of science in nursing (MSN) with an emphasis in forensics at Duquesne University School of Nursing. Since students in this program already have a strong medical background, they will be able to dive right into specialized coursework such as pathophysiology, criminal law, pharmacology, and the legal system.

This program can be completed in as little as two and a half years. Since this program is offered online, students do not need to relocate to complete their studies. There is a required on-campus three-day residency where students will gain hands-on skills and have the opportunity to network with other students and faculty. Admission requirements include one year of work experience as a registered nurse, a bachelor’s degree, and an undergraduate-level course in statistics.

  • Location: Pittsburgh, PA
  • Duration: Two and a half years
  • Accreditation: Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)
  • Tuition: $1,509 per credit

University of Florida – College of Medicine and the Department of Pathology, Immunology, and Laboratory Medicine

Aspiring medicolegal death investigators can complete an online master’s degree in forensic medicine at the University of Florida’s College of Medicine and the Department of Pathology, Immunology, and Laboratory Medicine. This two-year 37-credit program prepares students for this career with state-of-the-art technology and outstanding faculty.

Students will take classes in forensic anthropology, trauma analysis, communication skills in a forensic context, artifacts of decomposition, and more. With nine credits of required elective, students have the opportunity to tailor their education to their interests. There are both thesis and non-thesis options for completing this program. Admission requirements include already having a bachelor’s degree and a 3.0 upper-division coursework GPA.

  • Location: Gainesville, FL
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Tuition: $575 per credit

University of North Dakota

The University of North Dakota offers nationally recognized online death investigator training. While these courses do not result in a degree, they meet the training and continuing education coursework requirements for aspiring and current professionals in this field. Students can choose to take one course or complete all six.

Courses include basic death investigator training, cultural competency, forensic pathology, terminology and diseases, and mental health issues for death investigators. This program is designed to be accessible in order to address the critical need for training for this specialized career.

  • Location: Grand Forks, ND
  • Duration: Three to twelve month
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Tuition: $39 to $650 per course

How Long Does it Take to Become a Medicolegal Death Investigator?

It takes at least three years of post-high school education to become a medicolegal death investigator. However, because this career requires both medical and criminal justice training and education, it can take longer.

How To Become a Medicolegal Death Investigator – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Complete a GED (Four Years)

While some community colleges may not require applicants, it is advantageous to earn a high school diploma or obtain a GED. A GED or high school diploma demonstrates a minimum level of education and a dedication to completing a course of study. Also, most bachelor’s programs require applicants to have one or the other in order to be eligible for admission.

Step 2: Complete Medicolegal Death Investigator Education (Two to Six Years)

Students can pursue a variety of levels of education and degrees in order to enter this field. Most students earn an associate, bachelor’s, or master’s degree. A typical course of study can include medicolegal death investigation, psychology, criminal justice forensics, and anthropology. Aspiring medicolegal death investigators also need medical training, so some students may pursue medical education first, such as nursing, and then complete forensics training.  

Step 3: Obtain Medicolegal Death Investigator Work Experience (One to Two Years)

This career requires significant hands-on training in order to be proficient, so obtaining work experience is a must. Most medicolegal death investigators start by working in a coroner’s or medical examiner’s office and eventually train into the role of medicolegal death investigator.

Knowledge of local, state, and federal laws is essential to success in this field, so aspiring professionals with only medical backgrounds may need to obtain law enforcement experience. This work experience can be earned as part of an education program, volunteer work, or paid employment.

Step 4: Earn a Medicolegal Death Investigator Certification (Optional, Timeline Varies)

The American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMI) offers either registry level certification or board certification for medicolegal death investigators. Registry level certification is entry-level, whereas board certification for medicolegal death investigators is for experienced professionals. Certification is an industry-standard and may be required for employment.

What Do Medicolegal Death Investigators Do?

Medicolegal death investigators work in coroner’s and medical examiner’s offices. They often work out in the field and can be required to work odd shifts, including weekends and evenings. Typical job duties include:

  • Responding to a death scene
  • Inspecting and documenting the state of the body using diagrams, notes, photographs, and sketches
  • Gathering information from witnesses
  • Coordinating the removal and, if applicable, the release of the body
  • Assisting the medical examiner or coroner with the initial examination of the body
  • Helping to gather dental or medical records to assist with body identification
  • Maintaining the chain of custody for any evidence gathered
  • Determining to initiate a criminal investigation, if necessary

Medicolegal Death Investigator Certifications & Licensure

The American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators (ABMI) offers both registry level certification and board certification for medicolegal death investigators.

To earn registry level certification, candidates must provide documentation of at least 640 hours of death investigation experience, pass the registry level exam, and be currently employed in the field.

For board certification, candidates must hold at least an associate’s degree from an accredited institution, be currently employed in the field, hold registry level certification, and have 4,000 hours of death investigation experience in the past six years.

There are currently no state licensing requirements for medicolegal death investigators.

How Much Do Medicolegal Death Investigators Make?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics does not have data on medicolegal death investigators. Forensic science technicians, one related profession, earn $63,170 annually on average with the following percentiles:

  • 10th percentile: $35,620                                               
  • 25th percentile: $45,180
  • 50th percentile (median): $59,150   
  • 75th percentile: $77,200         
  • 90th percentile: $97,350

Medicolegal Death Investigator Alternatives

There are many alternative careers to being a medicolegal death investigator. Here are a few:

Crime Scene Investigator

Crime scene investigators are responsible for examining the scene, gathering evidence, and maintaining a chain of custody. They can be called to investigate traffic accidents, burglaries, or even homicides. 

  • Typical Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: International Association for Identification, International Crime Scene Investigators Association (ICSIA)

Forensic Scientist

Forensic scientists are often found working in the lab of a coroner’s or medical examiner’s office. They are responsible for running performing chemical analyses on chemical, biological, or microscopic samples. They help law enforcement and prosecutors by providing links between suspects and criminal actions.

  • Typical Education: Bachelor’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Board of Forensic Toxicology (ABFT)

Pathologists’ Assistant

Pathologists’ assistants work in morgues and hospitals under the supervision of pathologists. They perform gross (initial) examinations on bodies as well are more detailed inspections. They are also responsible for gathering tissue and fluid samples for analysis.

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Society for Clinical Pathology (ASCP)
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson

Writer

Kimmy is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.

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