Forensic Autopsy--A Body of Clues

A murder victim's body is often a source of invaluable clues to what has happened at a crime scene. It is the job of the forensic pathologist performing a forensic autopsy to discover, collect and document these clues.

Crime scene evidence comes in many forms: a broken vase, a bloody hammer, footprints outside a window, bloodspatter on walls and ceilings or fingerprints on a glass or door knob. In a murder or suicide, one of the best pieces of evidence is the victim's body itself. Hair or fibers and blood stains left on clothing provide evidence; however, the human body is a priceless source of evidence. Obviously, the body usually indicates the cause of death like strangulation, gun shot, blunt force trauma, etc. The cause of death can tell how the victim died, but it can never tell why the victim died. The fine details of how this death occurred can provide a wealth of additional information. To the untrained eye most of this evidence might go unnoticed. To reveal this evidence is the job of the medical examiner and or forensic pathologist, who is trained to look for just such details.

The Forensic Autopsy

The key procedure for finding this evidence is the forensic autopsy, a procedure required in all cases of questionable cause of death. This autopsy, or post-mortem examination as it is often called, is conducted to help identify three elements of the crime: 1) the cause of death, 2) the mechanism of death and 3) the manner of death of the victim in question. The forensic autopsy is performed by either the Office of the Medical Examiner or a coroner's office. The medical examiner is a licensed physician who is appointed by the governor of a state to investigate deaths that appear to be of a violent, suspicious or unnatural nature. The coroner is an elected, or sometimes appointed, government official who is trained in investigating deaths, but who may not have a medical degree. The coroner investigates the crime scene for evidence, moves the body to the morgue, prepares the death certificate and oversees the autopsy, which is performed by a M.D. who is a forensic pathologist. The exact system for handling forensic autopsies can vary from state to state and often by county within a state.

The Cause of Death

In a medical autopsy, the cause of death is usually pretty well known: cancer, liver failure, heart failure, etc. This is generally based on a large body of evidence from hospital and doctors' records to family recollections. However, in the forensic autopsy, very little, if any past information is known about the victim, including, in most cases, the victim's name. Thus, the examiner must try to develop as complete a picture of how this victim died and any evidence, including trace evidence that may be found on the victim's clothing, belongings, and on the body itself. In the end, the forensic pathologist conducting an autopsy determines the cause of death and the manner of death. In this determination, the autopsy results and all other relevant evidence is reviewed before as final determination is made.

Some autopsies provide a much better chance of revealing relevant details. These include cases where the victim's identity is known and where the body is discovered soon after the crime. The most difficult cases include those where the victim has been in water for a long period of time, victims in a fire situation, badly decomposed, buried bodies and full skeletal remains. Each situation presents its own set of problems for the autopsy examination and is the reason that forensic autopsies must be performed by well trained and experienced examiners. Ultimately, the information derived from the autopsy finding will find their way into the prosecution's case as evidence used to convict the perpetrator of the crime when that individual is caught.

What the Autopsy Reveals

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