U.S. death investigators pursue courses through Department of Pathology

Document Type

News Article

Publication Date


Campus Unit

School of Medicine & Health Sciences


GRAND FORKS, N.D.—Working as the eyes and ears for forensic pathologists, death investigators require special training to reconstruct accident or crime scenes. The Department of Pathology at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, along with the Office of Extended Learning, offer a series of online, enroll-anytime courses designed to train a wide variety of candidates. In September 2010, the National Institute of Justice awarded a five-year, just under $1 million grant to the Department of Pathology to develop and deliver the courses. The original goal of the NIJ grant was for UND instructors to reach 1,000 to 2,000 online participants. Although this grant is completed, during the grant, UND had over 15,000 registrations from all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, several U.S. territories, and 46 countries, from Antigua to Zambia.

The six courses were expanded and modernized and are now offered through the Office of Extended Learning. They are designed for physicians, rural coroners, aspiring candidates for employment and certification as a death investigator, EMS/first responders, law enforcement, nurses, physician assistant students, other forensic scientists, morticians, and full-time ABMDI death investigators. ABMDI is the American Board of Medicolegal Death Investigators , a voluntary national, not-for-profit, independent, professional certification board that has been established to promote the highest standards of practice for medicolegal death investigators.

In addition to the ABMDI, the courses are approved by the Minnesota Department of Health—Mortuary Science Program, North Dakota Board of Nursing, and meet the Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) for Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota, and Tennessee. UND instructors developed the courses based on national principles established by the NIJ, which is the research, development, and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice.

The NIJ recognizes that UND and its forensic pathology professionals possess the expertise, professional standards, and resources that are essential to impart a high-quality education. UND’s Forensic Pathology Facility has earned full accreditation from the National Association of Medical Examiners (NAME). NAME is the national professional organization of physician medical examiners, medical death investigators, and death investigation system administrators who perform the official duties of the medicolegal investigation of deaths of public interest in the United States. NAME is recognized as the premier professional organization of forensic pathologists and death investigators.

UND’s facility is the first to achieve NAME accreditation in North Dakota and South Dakota; it is the sole accredited forensic pathology provider between Minneapolis, Minn., and Spokane, Wash.

UND SMHS professionals at the facility perform full medicolegal death investigations and forensic autopsies for Grand Forks County and eight counties in northwestern Minnesota: Kittson, Lake of the Woods, Mahnomen, Marshall, Norman, Polk, Red Lake, and Roseau. In addition, they serve as consultants to North Dakota coroners and perform forensic autopsies for 21 counties in North Dakota.

“We have a great team serving death investigators across the nation,” said Mary Ann Sens, MD, PhD, professor and chair of the Department of Pathology at the UND SMHS, and past president of NAME. “Everyone, every family, every community needs sympathetic, professional, and high-quality death investigation done with respect, honesty, and completeness. Our justice system, public health system, and families all depend on timely and professional investigations done with integrity and respect.”

Associate Professor and Assistant Medical Examiner Walter Kemp, MD, PhD, leads UND’s effort in teaching the courses. The expertise of Kemp and Sens is bolstered by Associate Professor and Assistant Medical Examiner Mark Koponen, MD, and Assistant Professor and Assistant Medical Examiner Sarah Meyers, MD.

In addition to supporting law enforcement and other agencies, UND trains investigators to recognize issues that affect public health and occupational safety. In particular, UND has made a commitment to train rural and frontier investigators who face a unique set of challenges that their urban counterparts don’t face. Most importantly, students are taught the critical skills professional death investigators need to serve victims’ families at a time of need, personal loss, and tragedy.

“This training is key for all first responders and those charged with the responsibility of death scene response,” Sens said. “With this training, we can ensure the highest standard is met for all North Dakotans and others who need their questions answered and their medicolegal needs met while respecting and informing family members in a time of crisis and loss.”

If you would like more information or to register for Death Investigation Training, please visit the UND Office of Extended Learning’s website.