What is a Coroner's Inquest?
A coroner's inquest is neither a civil nor a criminal trial proceeding. It is simply an inquiry into the manner and cause of an individual's death.
An inquest is conducted by the coroner or deputy coroner with a court reporter or tape recorder and six jurors present. The jurors are citizens of Stephenson County, the county in which the death took place. The inquest takes place in the Stephenson County Courthouse usually in the County Board Room.
The purpose of the inquest is to present pertinent information concerning the victim's death in order for the jury to arrive at a cause and manner of death. The cause of death is often readily apparent and obvious, based on the facts, circumstances, medical evidence and in some cases, toxicology and autopsy results. The real essence of the jurors' responsibility is to establish the manner of death (suicide, homicide, accident, natural or undetermined).
The coroner will summon to the inquest the individuals who have pertinent information concerning the incident. This often includes, but is not limited to, the person who found the deceased, witnesses to the incident, those involved, police officers and investigators, and in some instances, a direct relative. All individuals summoned will present testimony (answer questions) to the jury. Any professional reports (autopsy, toxicology, x-ray and laboratory reports) will be presented at that time. These reports are not released to the public until the inquest procedures are concluded.
All information and testimony at the inquest is recorded and/or transcribed by a certified court reporter. The inquest is open to the public and may not be closed pursuant to any requests to do so. Anyone may attend.
Upon completion of the testimony, the coroner's jury will deliberate in private. They may request additional testimony, evidence, or conference, as they deem necessary. When the jury has concluded their deliberations, they will issue a verdict through the foreman as to the cause and manner of death (accident, homicide, natural, suicide or undetermined).
The coroner's verdict has no civil or criminal trial significance. The verdict and inquest proceedings are merely fact finding in nature and statistical in purpose. However, if a person is implicated as the unlawful slayer of the deceased or accessory thereto, an arrest may be affected. This is extremely rare, as this function is now performed by the state's attorney's grand jury proceedings.
The testimony presented at the inquest is sworn and under oath and properly documented and/or recorded. Because of this, testimony may subsequently be used in perjury proceedings if such testimony should change in future civil or criminal trial proceedings.