Pending death investigations hold up survivors’ benefits

State medical examiner has more than 800 cases yet to get official ruling

BY ZIVA BRANSTETTER AND CASEY SMITH - Tulsa World Published: August 6, 2012

More than 800 death investigations are pending with the State Medical Examiner’s Office, some more than a year old, hampering police investigations and depriving survivors of life insurance payments and other benefits, a Tulsa World investigation has found.

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According to state law, the agency has jurisdiction in the following cases:

1. Violent deaths, including apparent homicides, suicide or accidents.

2. Deaths caused by “suspicious, unusual or unnatural means.”

3. Deaths related to disease that could pose a threat to public health.

4. Deaths unattended by a licensed medical or osteopathic physician for fatal or potentially fatal illness.

5. Deaths of persons after unexplained coma.

6. Deaths that are medically unexpected and that occur during a therapeutic procedure.

7. Deaths of any inmate occurring in any place of penal incarceration.

8. Deaths of persons whose bodies are to be cremated, buried at sea, transported out of state or otherwise made ultimately unavailable for pathological study.

By the numbers

Here are selected numbers from the 2010 annual report issued by the Oklahoma Office of Chief Medical Examiner:

•35,697: Number of all deaths reported in the state of Oklahoma in 2010.

•20,052: Reported to the medical examiner by medical and law enforcement personnel.

•16,293: Cases in which the agency assumed jurisdiction of the reported death.

•13,678: Cases investigated because they were going to be cremated, shipped out of state or ultimately made unavailable for pathological study.

•5,255: Total cases selected for a complete investigation and examination.

•1,645: Cases selected for autopsy. Autopsies were not performed in deaths “where scene investigation, circumstances, medical history, and external examination of the body provided sufficient information for death certification.”

Source: Office of Chief Medical Examiner

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