Forensic pathology expert witness Dr. Robert Kurtzman testified in the Grand Junction, CO, case against Heather Jensen. Jensen is charged in the 2012 hyperthermia deaths of her two young sons. Kurtzman described how children succumb to hyperthermia more quickly than adults. Dr. Kurtzman is a Staff Pathologist at the Grand Junction Community Hospital and former Former Mesa County coroner. The Mesa County Coroner’s Office website explains their role:
Deaths may be expected, but others; which are sudden, unexpected, and suspicious or from a violent act are investigated by the Coroner’s Office. The responsibility of the Mesa County Coroner’s Office is to conduct a complete unbiased forensic investigation to determine the cause and manner of death, and to answer any questions which may arise. Questions which seem irrelevant in the initial hours after death can become significant in the following months….
Pronounce the death and establish time of death – Only a physician or the coroner may pronounce a death.
Scene investigation – Colorado law is specific that the body of a deceased person may not be moved until the coroner has responded to the death and conducted the investigation.
Take custody of the body – Colorado law states it is the responsibility of the coroner to see that the body is removed from the scene.
Make positive identification of the deceased – Identification and notification of the next of kin.
Discovery of Remains – Remains that are complete or partial are sometimes found, thus the coroner must follow certain statutory obligations notifying other state agencies.
Suspicious Death Protocol includes:
County Coroner 1. The Coroner’s Office will be notified immediately. As noted above, the official from the Coroner’s Office will be escorted to view the body and pronounce death. Every attempt will be made to insure that the body is not moved until viewed by the Coroner’s Office.
2. If the Coroner’s Office is notified before law enforcement, the Coroner’s Office will immediately advise dispatch to notify the District Attorney’s Office and law enforcement authorities and then proceed to the death scene or to view the body. Prior to entering the death scene, the official from the Coroner’s Office will coordinate his/her efforts with the Crime Scene Supervisor in order to preserve the scene and avoid contamination, as noted above.
3. The Coroner’s Office will determine the need for a forensic autopsy.
4. The Coroner’s Office will communicate directly with the Lead Investigator and the Crime Scene Specialist to facilitate transport of the body to the autopsy and /or funeral home.
5. All unattended child deaths will be autopsied by a forensic pathologist.
6. Depending on the circumstances of the investigation, the autopsy may be attended by Law Enforcement and / or District Attorney or his/her representative. Since the autopsy is part of the investigation to show cause and manner of death, as well as to communicate with law enforcement about details of the investigation, this information would be considered sensitive to the investigation and attendance by others such as defense attorneys, defense investigators and members of the media would not be appropriate.