Photo by Anthony Mair
The Reality Coroner
The longtime success of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation has been both positive and negative for Clark County coroner Michael Murphy. On one hand, he’s thankful for the interest and exposure the TV drama has brought to his profession and the science behind it; on the other, the show has created unreasonable expectations about the time frame in which his office can investigate an unnatural death.
This year, Murphy will have the opportunity to educate the public on the reality of being a coroner investigator and medical examiner in an upcoming series on the Discovery Channel. There are nearly 14,000 deaths per year (about 38 per day) in Clark County. About 3,500 of those come through Murphy’s office for further examination, with about half of the bodies receiving external exams and toxicology work, and the other half getting full autopsies.
Murphy, a former police officer and jailer who has been the county coroner since 2003, is careful not to call the Discovery series a “reality show.” He instead refers to it as a documentary, one he hopes will bring attention to the numerous unidentified and missing persons his office continues to investigate. “If it solves one case,” he says, “it’s been worth the effort.”
He also wants to convey the frailty of human life, perhaps even changing behaviors or attitudes on subjects that affect health, including drug use and obesity. “Some of the simplest things can cause you to lose your life,” he says. “And yet some of the things that you’d think would absolutely kill you immediately, people live with for years. And I find that fascinating.”
Murphy’s primary concerns with the TV series are protecting the integrity of his office as well as its moral obligation toward grieving families. So while cameras might capture county employees driving to a home to deliver a death message and perhaps even explore their feelings at that time, they won’t show the actual message being delivered or any decedents.
“This show is designed conceptually to show the science behind what we do, to let viewers see the emotion of our employees as they [perform their duties],” Murphy says. “We’ve been very careful about how we’ve crafted that concept.”
The series has yet to be shot, although Murphy expects filming to start next month. He will receive no money from the show, but the county will get $5,000 per episode. Murphy will watch each episode before it airs with other county representatives to ensure the show, which could air later this year, meets their standards. “And that could always be the deal-breaker in the end,” he says. “And if that’s the case, then so be it.”