Dotti Owens seizes your attention from sentence one. When I considered how to describe her, I realized one word would not sum up this dynamic, death investigation change-maker. During our interview, I found Dotti’s energy infectious, her knowledge exceptional, and her passion relentless. Plus, her words are backed up with some impressive certification letters. This is a woman worth listening to.
Dotti’s office is one of only three in the nation accredited by both IAC-ME and NAME — the International Association of Coroners and Medical Examiners and the National Association of Medical Examiners, respectively. But her credentials are not merely for decoration on her business cards.
Dotti has strong opinions on how to run a coroner’s office efficiently and effectively. She told me, “We need more than state guidelines, we need national standards for handling death investigations. Victims and their families deserve consistency and a job well done.”
“Can you give me some examples,” I asked.
“First, I believe every person who runs for a coroner position should be required to prove how vested they are in the office they seek. They should hold at least an ABMDI (American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators) certification, before filing. If subordinates need a specific level of eligibility before working out in the field, their supervisors should be held to the same standard, or higher.”
“Sounds like common sense,” I said.
Her voice raised a decibel. “It frustrates me when I hear an unqualified person say they’ll lean on their team while they learn. Maybe I’m too passionate about this work, but I feel a responsibility to the people we process and their families. Every one of them should be treated with dignity. Regardless of how a person died, there should be no judgment. Just consistency and compassion.”
I envisioned a brain surgeon turned loose on a patient without his medical degree, expecting the surgical team to pick up his slack. The image made me shudder — I’d hate to be the person lying on the table. Dotti expressed her honor for the dead with the same care an outstanding physician would for the living. I had no doubt that those on her table received extraordinary attention to detail.
“Are there other reasons you are so adamant about education for death investigators?” I said.
Dotti laughed, “I could talk about this for days. But seriously, if you don’t really know what you’re doing, you could hurt cases and people. An inexperienced coroner or medical examiner can be dangerous.”
I must confess, I asked myself, The victim is already dead, how much more damage could be done?
But instead of voicing my thoughts, I said, “How so?”
“I’ve received requests for files from months, years, or even decades ago. Recently, I was asked for a report going back to 1994. But the documentation requirements for our county then weren’t what they are today, so there’s often not enough information to make a difference. My goal is to change that . . . and I am.
I believe there needs to be such a high level of consistency in policies and procedures, that anyone, including the person who wrote the reports and took the photos, could open the file thirty years later, and make a fresh determination. This is why I think there should be state and national standards for handling death investigations. And that brings me to another thing I’d like to see change.”
“What’s that?” I said.
“Death investigators need to take their own photos. There are too many issues that can arise if someone else does it. A court case may be thrown out, due to poor documentation or scene processing — not everyone is trained in appropriate angling, or peripheral evidence. Photos can mistakenly be deleted or lost, before they get in your hands. The chain of evidence can be broken.
In our county, we’ve established a great working relationship with local law enforcement. They’re fabulous. They will alert us as soon as possible, when there’s a death, so we can prepare. We often get calls from an officer who says, ‘We’ve got a body, but we’re not ready for you quite yet.’
That’s great, because they don’t disturb anything that might hamper our work, and we don’t get in their way. We’ve talked things through in advance, and have a good understanding.”
I said, “If I’m hearing beneath the surface correctly, it sounds like you’re saying you’re a proponent of consistency in policies and procedures internally, as well as collaboratively between other agencies.”
“Definitely. It’s important to build relationships that create clear and early communication,” she said.
I added, “I guess you don’t want to be called in after someone else has snapped, bagged, and tagged the body.”
“Absolutely,” Dotti said. “And if it’s an officer involved case, there could be integrity or ethics issues if someone from their department snaps the pictures. If a death investigator does not take responsibility for getting their own photos, there’s a myriad of ways a court case can be damaged or destroyed. Of course, that hurts victim families, too.”
I detected an ever so subtle crack in Dotti’s voice when she mentioned the families.
She soldiered on. “How can you stand in front of a family in good conscience, if you aren’t qualified to fully understand or speak to the situation involving their loved one? Education and certification is crucial if you want to effectively bring dignity to the dead, and help those who survive.”
The more Dotti talked, the more her heart for the people she served shown through.
I moved to the next question. “I know money is an issue for many coroners and medical examiners, do you have any thoughts on funding?”
Dotti did not disappoint.
“The biggest issue I see is lack of understanding. Outside of those of us in the field, few know what we really do. Coroners do more than transport bodies these days. I believe they could and should take scene photos, process physical evidence, write reports, testify in court, compassionately help families let their loved ones go, and educate the public about preventative measures that could save lives.”
“How can death investigators inform others about what they do?”
“I’m glad you asked,” Dotti laughed. “Get involved. I’ve connected with local, regional, state, and even national agencies, like NACo, the National Association of Counties. By developing these relationships, I can give voice to what we really do and let them know what we need.”
“What about smaller agencies? I assume not everyone can afford the money or time to get involved at that level.” I said. I wasn’t surprised that Dotti had answers.
“Just last week, I learned there are grant funds available for smaller, rural coroner departments in my state. But if I hadn’t attended a conference, I wouldn’t have known. It made me realize, there may be resources available for a lot of death investigators with tight or non-existent budgets.”
“Would it be fair to say you won’t find out if you don’t allocate the time and get involved, at whatever level you can? I would think sitting in on any meetings where decision-makers gather would be beneficial,” I said.
“Exactly,” Dotti said. “And don’t forget the importance of clearly relaying what it is you do, so community members, policy-makers, businesses, agencies, and organizations can better understand your needs. Once someone knows you and how much you do, sometimes, it’s simply a matter of picking up the phone to ask.”
I chimed in, “I’ve learned being tenacious doesn’t hurt either, don’t take no as an absolute no.”
Dotti chuckled. “Without question. We need help to make a difference, and to prevent more deaths.”
Intrigued, I asked, “So you see death prevention as part of your job?”
“Of course,” Dotti said. “We are the final stop, the end of the line. We see, hear, smell, and touch things most people are clueless about. Including many physicians.”
“Tell me about that,” I said.
“Take opioids, for instance,” Dotti said. “I’ve seen an ER doctor listen to a young person who told him what narcotic she wanted, and how much he should prescribe. The doctor just wrote out the script and sent her on. He had no idea that someone specializing in pain management would not have given her opioids. He hasn’t seen the pattern of death we view weekly, due to this kind of abuse.
Listen, he wasn’t a bad doc, just uninformed. On the back side of death, there’s a lot of education we can offer — but we have to speak up.”
“I imagine there are a lot of people who would benefit from what you have to share. Schools are the first to come to my mind,” I said.
“Getting in front of educators and students, teaching age appropriately, could help prevent many unnecessary deaths. Not only do I speak at schools, but I encourage other coroners to do the same. Just think about what we see, the consequences of death from texting, substance abuse, fatigue, carelessness, and more. This job takes a toll, but it also makes us passionate about prevention. Coroners and death investigators carry a powerful level of credibility. We represent the finality of life, and that gets attention.”
I thought about the affect the job must have on the women and men regularly exposed to gruesome, horrific, or simply sad states of demise. “How do you cope with what you deal with every day?”
“Death investigators are not immune to the effects of what we are subjected to. But I’ve found taking intentional mental breaks helps a lot. Our office has pumpkin carving contests, holiday parties, picnics, and other things to deepen our bonds and boost our morale. Sometimes, we simply sit around a table and talk through our day and how it made us feel. It helps us process. We’re tight knit. We are family.”
I looked at my watch, and knew I needed to wrap things up, although Dotti’s inspiring dialogue would have kept me interested for hours. “Dotti, before we finish, I have one more question. Do you have any advice for someone newer to the field of death investigation?”
She paused for mere seconds before plunging in. “Do the work because you believe in it, because you’re passionate about making a difference — never because of money. And remember, families, other loved ones, and community members should be able to count on your consistency, accuracy, and compassion when you work a death.”
“Is there anything else?” I said.
“I’d encourage anyone in this field to act preventively and speak up. If you see opioids prescribed to the decedent, don’t leave them there. Document well, then destroy them. Do not leave them behind so the problem can be perpetuated, possibly leading to the death of another human being. You have a responsibility to make a difference where you can. We work with the dead, but we can also help save lives.”
Dotti inspired me in so many ways. The insights and principles she shared prompted me to think about death investigation with fresh eyes. And I took away several thought-provoking points.
- Do everything possible to increase your knowledge and give yourself credibility.
- Implement consistent policies and processes, to protect cases and people.
- Do not assume others understand what you deal with, it’s up to you to educate them.
- Develop and maintain good working relationships with other departments, agencies, organizations, and people.
- Don’t be passive with what you know, if it could benefit someone else. Remember, your courageous voice could prevent more deaths.
- Even medical or mental health professionals don’t always know how to best handle the living. What you’ve learned from seeing death could open their eyes and save a life.
- Attend conferences, forums, and other meetings, where you can learn and also share.
But the most important thing I learned from Dotti? Death investigators don’t just process bodies — they change lives — one death at a time. That’s a noble cause.