What deaths fall under the jurisdiction of the Cobb County Medical Examiner?
The deaths that fall under the jurisdiction of the Cobb County Medical Examiner are defined by § 45-16-24 (The Georgia Death Investigation Act) as deaths that occur:
- As a result of violence;
- By suicide or casualty;
- Suddenly when in apparent good health;
- When unattended by a physician;*
- In any suspicious or unusual manner, with particular attention to those persons 16 years of age and under;
- After birth but before seven years of age if the death is unexpected or unexplained;
- As a result of an execution carried out pursuant to the imposition of the death penalty under Article 2 of Chapter 10 of Title 17;
- When an inmate of a state hospital or a state, county, or city penal institution; or
- After having been admitted to a hospital in an unconscious state and without regaining consciousness within 24 hours of admission.
*§ 45-16-21. Definitions. "Unattended death," "died unattended," or "died unattended by a physician" means a death where a person dies of apparently natural causes and has no physician who can certify the death as being due to natural causes. If the suspected cause of death directly involves any trauma or complication of such trauma, the death must be reported to the coroner or county medical examiner. An unattended death also occurs when a person is admitted in an unresponsive state to a hospital and dies within 24 hours of admission.
The municipalities served by the Cobb County Medical Examiner Office include Marietta, Kennesaw, Smyrna, Acworth, Powder Springs, and Austell. The Cobb County Medical Examiner additionally covers two federal parks and the unincorporated areas of Cobb County.
Deaths occurring within Cobb County fall under the jurisdiction of the CCME with some exceptions such as those deaths occurring on state property and are thus investigated by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and military personnel who die on Dobbins Air Reserve Base and fall under the jurisdiction of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System.
Additionally, deaths that occur outside of Cobb County, but resulted from an injury that occurred within Cobb County, also fall under the CCME jurisdiction.
Are all deaths in Cobb County the jurisdiction of the Cobb County Medical Examiner?
Upon the reporting of a death to the Cobb County Medical Examiner, jurisdiction of the case is either declined or accepted. Cases are declined because the case belongs to another jurisdiction for investigation or the case need not have been reported to the CCME and a treating physician of the decedent should sign the death certificate. Cases accepted for jurisdiction by the CCME means that the death certificate will be signed by the Medical Examiner.
A Medical Examiner is a doctor who is specifically trained in how to investigate people’s deaths and to perform medical procedures, such as autopsies, to determine the cause of their deaths. These physicians are responsible for investigating violent, suspicious, unattended or unnatural deaths. The duty of a Medical Examiner is to determine the cause and manner of death by using medical testing and procedures and to certify the deaths for the State.
State law requires a Medical Examiner to determine the cause and manner of death of persons who die under specific circumstances. This includes those that occur:
- as a result of violence;
- by suicide;
- by accident;
- suddenly when in apparent good health;
- when not under the care of a physician;
- in any suspicious or unusual manner;
- as a result of an execution carried out pursuant to the imposition of the death penalty;
- when an inmate of a state hospital or a state, county, or city penal institution; or
- after having been admitted to a hospital in an unconscious state and without regaining consciousness within 24 hours of admission.
It typically takes about three months for the Medical Examiner's Report to be completed. The Medical Examiner’s Office does not release a report until all information has been gathered from third parties, testing has been performed, and the final evaluation written.
When the Medical Examiner's Report is complete, it is available under the Open Records Act. A written request may be emailed, mailed or faxed to the Medical Examiner’s Office. Please include the name of the decedent, date of death, the requestor’s name, address, and phone number.
Death certificates are completed as soon as the cause and manner of death is determined. It will take about three months to make these determinations. As soon as the case is completed, a death certificate is filed with the Georgia Department of Public Health. Visit their website at dph.georgia.gov for more information.
The Medical Examiner’s Office may provide a Proof of Death letter for any individual under our jurisdiction. This is a notarized letter on Medical Examiner's Office letterhead verifying the death and that the investigation regarding cause and manner of death are under review. Some organizations will allow this notarized letter to substitute for the death certificate. However the letter may not be accepted by others, such as insurance companies. There is no charge for the letters.
The Medical Examiner’s Office cannot recommend a funeral home. Almost all funeral homes have a webpage and can be found by performing an internet search.
In these situations, a death certificate may not be issued immediately, but this will not delay the funeral services.
Once the deceased has arrived at the Medical Examiner’s Office, an autopsy or external examination will be performed, usually the next business day. The legal next of kin should contact a funeral home or crematorium as soon as he or she learns of the death to make final arrangements and sign a written release giving the Medical Examiner’s Office permission to release the body to the funeral home.
Once the examination/investigation has been completed, the body will be released to the funeral home and arrangements can continue. In most cases the decedent can be released the same day as the examination unless there are extenuating circumstances, such as issues of identification.
Unfortunately, we do not have a facility available to accommodate viewing requests. Funeral homes are better equipped to accommodate the family’s requests for viewing once they have properly prepared the body.
If personal property is transported with a body to the Medical Examiner’s Office, the clothing and personal effects are removed and inventoried at the time of examination. They are stored in a secure location. Some items may be retained as evidence by the Medical Examiner’s Office or law enforcement. Property not retained as evidence is released with the decedent to the next of kin’s designated funeral home.
An autopsy is a dignified medical procedure, which provides a systematic examination of the body of a deceased person by a qualified physician. The body is inspected for the presence of disease or injury, and minimal specimens of the vital organs and/or body fluids may be taken for toxicological and other analysis. The internal organs and the brain will be examined, then replaced in the body for burial.
In some situations, a limited autopsy may be performed to examine only certain organs. Sometimes only an external examination is necessary. An external examination does not include opening the body to study the organs, however, body fluids may be taken for toxicology testing.
By State law, the Medical Examiner is not required to receive permission from the next of kin for an autopsy that falls under the Medical Examiner's jurisdiction. Religious objections to an autopsy are considered by the Medical Examiner’s Office, with consultation on a case by case basis.
Medical Examiner services are provided by Cobb County for free.
The history of death investigation in Georgia has been well-documented by Dr. Randy Hanzlick, the former Chief Medical Examiner for Fulton County, GA. You can read his full accounting of the death investigation system in Georgia at fultoncountyga.gov.
Below, reproduced with his permission, in italics, are excerpts from the history that Dr. Hanzlick has collected that concern Cobb County specifically or at the statewide level.
Until the 20th century, the United States continued to follow the tradition of the British law system, and deaths were investigated by the coroner.
“For the first 53 years of the 20th century, coroners continued to operate under the principals of English common law as clarified and set forth by the General Assembly’s act of 1823, and as codified several times after that date including Georgia Code 21-2 as established in 1933. When coroners needed a physician to perform a postmortem examination, they would have to rely upon whomever was willing and available to perform such examinations. Often, perhaps, medical examinations just didn’t take place. The laws did not provide specifically for physicians to assist in death investigations. It occurred mainly by happenstance.
“It was not until 1953 that the first major change in death investigation occurred in 20th century Georgia. In that year, Code Section 21-2 was repealed. In its place, a new Code 21-205 was enacted and titled “The Georgia Postmortem Examinations Act.” It was substantially similar in many respects to the 1954 “Model Postmortem Examinations Act” put forth by the National Commissioners on Uniform State Laws. Obviously, Georgia had gotten early wind of the Model Act and was timely in including some its provisions, which concentrated on a move toward so-called “medical examiner systems” which could be developed in place of the time-honored coroner systems. By 1954, some regions of the country had already abolished the office of coroner and established a system in which physicians were appointed as “medical examiners,” New York City being one example and having done so in 1918. Such systems spread in the mid-20th century, especially in the northeastern United States.
“The 1953 Georgia Postmortem Examinations Act did not dramatically alter the law related to coroners. What it did do, however, was establish law for a system that would improve death investigation services state wide by providing for more organized availability of postmortem examinations. It also provided, in conjunction with other state laws, that a county could abolish the office of coroner and establish in its place a county medical examiner system. The Georgia Postmortem Examinations Act of 1953 described the types of deaths that needed to be investigated by coroners and medical examiners; provided for the Director of the Division to serve as the State’s Chief Medical Examiner; detailed the requirements to run for the office of coroner; described procedures for coroner’s inquests and the other duties coroners could perform; detailed the roles and interactions of the coroner, medical examiner, law enforcement agencies, and DOFS; and included provisions for counties that wished to abolish the office of coroner and establish a medical examiner system. The Act was originally Code Section 21-205, was modified slightly through the years and was renumbered Georgia Code Title 45 where the death investigation laws reside today. Georgia Code 45-16-1 began with the laws related to coroners, and section 45-16-20 began the section formally titled “The Georgia Postmortem Examinations Act” which described all the specific of death investigation procedures in Georgia. Today, the law is called “The Georgia Death Investigation Act.”
“At present, 5 Georgia Counties have abolished the office of Coroner to establish a County Medical Examiner. These are, in order, Fulton (1965), Cobb (1973), DeKalb (1981), Gwinnett (1989), and Clayton (2001).
“Prior to 1973, the Cobb County Coroner relied upon a local hospital pathologist, Dr. Scherer, to perform autopsies for the county. Dr. Stivers, who was Medical Examiner for Fulton County, eventually provided autopsy services for the coroner, replacing Dr. Scherer. There was no serious opposition to the abolition of the office of coroner and the idea had support of the District Attorney and others. In 1973, Cobb County abolished the Office of Coroner and Dr. Stivers became the Medical Examiner on a contract basis. Subsequently, Dr. Stivers made a choice to concentrate his efforts in Fulton County, and he recruited William Anderson, MD, who had trained in North Carolina, to become the Medical Examiner in Cobb County around 1977. Dr. Joe Burton, who had trained in Miami, was also performing some autopsies for Cobb County. About one year later, in 1978, Dr. Burton acquired the contract to serve as Cobb County Medical Examiner. He remained in that role until February of 1999 when his associate, Dr. Brian Frist, assumed the contract as Chief Medical Examiner. Dr. Frist had gained his forensic pathology experience working with Dr. Burton in the DeKalb County Medical Examiner Office (see below). Originally, autopsies were performed in Kennestone Hospital in Cobb County, but in the mid-1980’s, a free standing medical examiner complex was constructed near the police department in Marietta.”
In 2014, Dr. Frist retired. Then Cobb County hired two board-certified forensic pathologists to serve as Chief and Deputy Chief Medical Examiner.
Dr. Christopher Gulledge completed pathology residency training at the University of North Carolina Hospital in Chapel Hill and his fellowship training in forensic pathology at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Chapel Hill, NC. He then practiced forensic pathology in Charlotte, NC prior to joining the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in Decatur, GA. Dr. Gulledge was hired by Cobb County as the Chief Medical Examiner starting March of 2015.
He was joined by Dr. Cassie Boggs as the Deputy Chief Medical Examiner in May of 2015. Dr. Boggs had completed her residency training at Virginia Commonwealth University Hospital System in Richmond, VA and her forensic pathology fellowship training at the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Baltimore, MD. She then worked as an associate medical examiner for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation in Decatur, GA prior to coming to Cobb County.