Forensic Autopsy--A Body of Clues

Aug. 27, 2007
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

The primary function of the autopsy is to determine the cause, manner and mechanism of death. The manner of death in a forensic case is generally homicide or suicide, as opposed to natural causes. The cause of death could be from gunshot or knife-inflicted wounds, blunt force trauma, hanging, etc. The mechanism of death refers to the actual agent used, such as poison, baseball bat, gun, kitchen knife, etc. The autopsy can often provide much evidence about the size, shape and any unique features of the murder weapon. Time of death is also determined, as well as lividity the pooling and discoloration of blood in the lower extremities. Lividity is helpful in determining if a body has been moved from the crime scene to another location after death.

The term autopsy comes from the Greek "to see for oneself." The forensic pathologist first performs an overall examination of at the entire body. This includes the hair and fingernails, all bodily orifices, the skin for evidence or needle marks, all external wounds and burses. Evidence such as fibers are often entrapped in the victim's hair, so the hair is meticulously combed for any evidence. In rape cases, the pubic hair of the victim is examined for any evidence of semen or body fluids and for potential hair from the perpetrator. Gunshot entrance and exit wounds are thoroughly examined and probed to reveal bullets or bullet fragments. They are also probed to determine the potential position of the shooter in relation to the victim at the time of the shooting. Stabbing wounds are also probed for any evidence of the weapon and the pattern of the wound in the skin. Photography at all stages in the investigation is a critical part of the forensic autopsy.

Trace Evidence

Trace evidence is often collected from the body surface at autopsy. These might be hairs, fibers, small fragments of plastic, paint or glass that may have come from the murder weapon or the crime scene. Dirt or soil on the body or on the victim's clothing can provide a clue to where the victim was actually killed, if it os believed that the body was moved to a different location. Similar soil found on a potential suspect's shoes or the tires of his car can provide a link of the suspect to the victim and to a crime scene location.

The remainder of the autopsy involves opening the body and removing the organs, which are weighed and examined for any injury caused in the crime that may have contributed to the victim's death. The brain is removed and treated in a similar manner. If blunt force trauma is the cause of death, the damage to the skull and brain may provide clues to the nature of the murder weapon, especially if no weapon is readily apparent at the crime scene. Tissue samples and blood are removed and subjected to various laboratory procedures by the forensic laboratory. Routinely, a toxicology blood screen is run for drugs and poisons or other compounds that might be the cause of death. These samples may also be subjected to other procedures like microbiological or immunological tests as directed by the pathologist.

The forensic autopsy can determine with reasonable certainty how the victim died and estimate the time of death. However, it cannot determine where or why the victim died.

The autopsy finding becomes an integral part of the crime investigation and can in many instances guide investigators in the right direction in pursuit of the perpetrator.

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