History of the Medical Examiner System

When Oklahoma became a state in 1907 and our constitution was ratified at the September 17th election, the Office of Coroner was not included. Revised laws in 1910 recognized a Justice of the Peace serving as an Acting Coroner and was given the power to impanel a jury of six people when needed to determine the cause of death. This inquest was conducted most of the time by bystanders who lacked medical knowledge and investigative skills, which resulted in the cause of death being just a "guess."

The Justice of the Peace-Coroner system continued in Oklahoma from 1910 until 1962. During this time, this part of the justice system was conducted in most counties in a haphazard and inefficient manner. In many cases inquests were never held when violent deaths occurred. Many times, the undertaker would pick up the body, take it to the funeral home and embalm it. Later a doctor would be contacted to sign the death certificate with what little information he was provided.

Attempts were made to change that system. However, lack of interest and knowledge of the real value for such changes made these attempts unsuccessful. A series of events took place in the mid-50's that changed the face of the coroner system in Oklahoma forever. The most significant contributor was a woman who had a habit of marrying, poisoning the husband and taking off with insurance and social security benefits. She came under suspicion when she poisoned one of them in Sand Springs, Oklahoma. He was a state highway department worker who had lost his former wife and children in a tornado in Arkansas. He met his new wife through a lonely hearts club, married her two days later and was dead two months later.

An investigation revealed the truth about other husbands she had poisoned (all with rat poison) and possibly other family members. She was arrested, tried in Tulsa District Court and found guilty. There was an uproar over giving a woman the death penalty in 1955. The judge ruled against it, citing "this court has never heard of a woman being put to death in Oklahoma." She was sentenced to life imprisonment and later died of natural causes in the McAlester State Prison.

With the years passing, the state growing in population and the case above gaining national attention, the need for a change became evident. In 1961, a bill was passed and signed into law beginning our modern medical examiner system. In 1962, the agency was officially formed and was originally called the Board of Unexplained Deaths. Over the next few years, it would come to be called what we know it today, the Board of Medicolegal Investigations or the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

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