- Death Investigation Team
- Death Investigation Stages
- Identification of the Dead
- Time of Death
- Cause of Death
- Manner of Death
- Digital Story Projects
Welcome to Medicolegal Death Investigation
Medicolegal Death Investigation
encompasses the investigative processes, protocols and techniques involved in ascertaining the cause and manner of a person’s death. Investigations of this type are multifaceted and require the expertise of a multidisciplinary team of skilled practitioners.
A death investigation team may include experts such as death investigators, police officers, crime scene investigators, coroners/medical examiners, pathologists, paramedics, forensic anthropologists, and forensic odontologists, among others.
Each member of the team is critical and each role provides necessary information that may ultimately contribute to the resolution of the investigation. Our goal is to bring a multidisciplinary approach to this course to study the best practices and protocols within the death investigation community.
Dr. Michael Thompson
Dr. Linda Davis-Stephens
Forensics is defined as the application of science to interpret clues for crime investigation. Early forensic scientists were physicians who were called to give their opinion of the cause of death of the victim in a crime. Today most forensic scientist are crime scene investigators that pick up clues and analyze crime scenes. They are able to do this because of criminals who do not plan out their crime and are careless and leave behind much evidence and this allows these investigators to track them and determine who the suspect of this crime is. The job of C.S.I. is to help establish a crime scene and what happened by reconstructing the scene. They are able to do this by carefully documenting the conditions of the scene and recognizing all evidence of that crime. The way investigators encounter a scene will dictate how they are going to approach they take. A homicide crime scene will require different treatment and process than a scene of a burglary or something else.
There are seven steps to ensure a thorough process of a crime scene.
The first is to establish the scene and mark of the dimensions to determine the safety and health hazards that might be. Investigators first locate the main area of the scene. From here they determine a area in which is likely to contain all relevant physical evidence. It is much easier for investigators to shrink the size of the scene after a little while than to find out that they didn’t mark off a big enough area and important evidence was damaged.
The second step is to establish some type of security at the scene. Every time someone enters or exits a scene will either add or subtract important evidence of the apparent crime. Scenes must be tapered off by yellow crime scene tape, cones or anything else to make a barrier. Officers should be set up at all entry points in order to keep the count of people to a minimum who enter the scene.
The third step is Plan, communicate and coordinate. Investigators must first determine a theory regarding the type of offense that occurred at the scene. Knowing the type of crime that happened will help investigators know what evidence to look for at the scene.
The fourth step is to conduct a primary survey/walkthrough. An initial servey of the scene is then conducted to prioritize evidence. The lead investigator walks through identifying potential evidence that might be valuable to the case. The scene will be documented in carful detail telling exactly how the scene is.
The fifth step is to document and process the scene of the crime. With a plan the investigators conduct a thorough, coordinated investigation of the scene, collecting all evidence. This step includes taking plenty of pictures of the whole scene, sketches and diagrams of the place.
The sixth step is to conduct a second survey/review to ensure that all the scene has been searched completely for all evidence.
The last step in to record and preserve the evidence. To make sure all evidence is accounted to, an inventory log is created for that specific case. All evidence must be bagged and tagged and made paperwork for each item.
Finally after all evidence is collected and the investigators determine they are done with the crime scene they are able to release is so that anyone is able to go there.
Identifying the Dead
By Brandon Gaede
The process of identification can begin before the actual body is found, as soon as a person is reported missing investigators can start collecting ante mortem data. This can be anything from the persons physical description, sex, age, hair color, stature, medical and dental records, tattoos, and recent photographs. Ante mortem records are essential for identifying the dead. Once a body is found depending on the circumstances investigators may have to call archaeologists or anthropologists to help with how long the body may have been dead, along with the medical examiner or coroner. After officials are finished collecting evidence from where the body was found the body is transported to a medical facility where and autopsy can be preformed, the pathologist may call in other professionals like odontologists, anthropologists, and radiologists to held identify the body.
Dental x-rays are considered one of the best ways to positively identify a body. Most dental features such as root curvature, tooth position, impacted teeth, extra teeth, and tooth crown anomalies are unique to each person, and usually survive intact while other parts of the body do not. X-rays from when the person was alive can be compared to post mortem x-rays to confirm the identity of the body. Dentures are also one way of identifying someone. In one case where acid was used to get rid of a body, the acid almost completely dissolved the body, a complete set of upper and lower dentures were recovered from the scene. Also today dentures are stamped with the initials of the wearer to make it easier to identify a person.
Helping identify the dead
If a death is reported to the Coroner you should not finalize funeral arrangements until the Coroner has authorized the release of the body for burial or cremation. Once satisfied that the postmortem procedure is completed the Coroner will release the body and issue a burial or cremation order. Even if the Coroner is going to hold an inquest, the funeral can still take place as soon as the Coroner has released the body. The Coroners Liaison Officer or the police will be able to confirm to you when the Coroner has released the body.
A postmortem examination (also known as an autopsy) is an examination of the body following death. It is carried out by a pathologist, a doctor specializing in the study of disease and injury in the body and in determining the cause of death. The pathologist works to standards set by The Royal College of Pathologists. The postmortem examination will start with an initial external examination of the body followed by an internal examination. The pathologist will need to remove and examine the major internal organs. In most cases the organs are returned to the body afterwards.
Although some information can be obtained from looking directly at organs in a postmortem examination, often the only way to understand properly what has happened is to look at part of an organ under the microscope, carry out special tests or obtain a second medical opinion. Occasionally it is necessary to retain whole organs for further examination, as this can provide more detailed understanding of the cause of death.
It is usually necessary to retain small tissue samples for further examination and for further tests such as looking at chromosomes or genes or to search for infections due to bacteria or viruses that may have caused a death. The samples of tissue taken for testing are usually retained in case they are needed to answer further questions about the cause of death.
Before DNA profiling was available or reliable, the most accepted method of identification of the deceased was through the process of fingerprinting. Fingerprints are unique to each individual and do not change with growth or age. Each finger and thumb has its own specific ridge pattern and this impression or pattern is left on anything a person touches in the environment.
It is important to document fingerprints found at the death scene as evidence when the death is considered unnatural, not accidental and may be the result of a homicide. In addition to documenting the death scene, an important part of the identification process is to record the deceased prints using special ink and paper. All fingerprint records become a permanent part of the deceased’s death record. Fingerprints can help make a preliminary or initial identification while awaiting DNA test results. In cases where DNA profiling is not available fingerprinting may be the most reliable way to make a positive identification. DNA is the most reliable method for making a positive identification, however fingerprinting, and the use of dental radiographs or x-rays is also acceptable. In certain cases surgical scars, previous injuries such as an amputation, birthmark, or tattoo may help identify a body where fingerprints and dental records are not available due to the body’s condition, as in cases of dismembered or where the body has been badly damaged in the death process. In instances where someone is hit by a semi-truck or train and only the torso or parts of the upper or lower extremities remain a unique tattoo may be the only way to positively identify the deceased. In the over 140 years that fingerprints have been routinely compared world wide, no two areas of friction skin on any two persons (including identical twins) have been found to contain the same individual characteristics in the same unit relationship. This means that in general, any area of friction skin that you can cover with a dime (and often with just a pencil eraser) on your fingers, palms, or soles of your feet will contain sufficient individual characteristics in a unique unit relationship to enable positive identification to the absolute exclusion of any other person on earth. Recent studies comparing the fingerprints of cloned monkeys showed that they, just like identical twin humans, have completely different fingerprints. When doctors state that twins have the same fingerprints, they are referring to the class characteristics of the general ridge flow, called the fingerprint pattern. These loop, arch and whorl ridge flow patterns have nothing to do with the individual characteristics used to positively identify persons. Before modern computerized systems, fingerprint classification was essential to enable manual filing and retrieval of fingerprints in large repositories. Forensic scientists who analyze fingerprints in the lab are typically called fingerprint examiners. The fingerprint examiner’s job begins when print arrives at the lab from the scene of the crime. A fingerprint examiner must first carefully mark the distinguishing features of the full or partial print. The next step is to enter the print into a fingerprint identification system such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Integrated Automated Fingerprint Identification System (IAFIS). Finally, the examiner must manually compare latent fingerprints with potential matches obtained by the system in order to make a positive identification.
Time of Death
When a person dies no matter what the cause of death may be, the corpse will undergo many different physical and chemical processes. Throughout the different processes that it will go through will help the forensic scientists be able to approximate the time and date at which the person past away. When an investigator is trying to determine the time the death occurred is called corpse’s postmortem interval. This is not an easy process for the forensic scientist to go through it takes time and patience to go the best possible outcome. In many circumstances there isn’t enouch substansial evidence to come to a conclusion on a case, it is mostly just an approximation. Being able to find the exact time of death is very difficult to achieve, everything has to go just right. The information that a forensic scientist gains is crucial for a few reasons, such as family closure, alibi acceptance, legal insurance issues.
Ways that a forensic scientist determines time of death. When a persons heart stops beating, the blood settles to the lowpoints of the body. After around twenty minutes of death the bodys skin will start to change color in these areas. Also a term called rigor mortis takes place. This is the stiffening of joints after death, due to metabolic acid built up. Rigor starts forming 1-2 hours after death, and by the time it has been 12 hours after death the body will most likely be completely stiff. And then begins to go away after another 12 hours. Family and friends statements can also be a way to determine the time of death, such as when and what time the victim was last seen. You can also find clues around the house such as the last time their mail has been checked, no electricity In the house, dust built up on everyday things that will be used and many other little clues you can find.
Cause of Death
Four visitors came to South America to stay for a couple of days. One of their relatives came to check on the family because there was no communication. As the relative kept knocking on the door, no one answered. She then opens the door and sees that the garage door open and finds a man lying on the floor dead. The car was running in the garage. When she immediately entered the garage, her head began to pound. Minutes later she dialed 911 and had also gone to check on the others. The other three were lying on a bed also dead. What might have caused these usual deaths?
Carbon monoxide toxicity occurs by inhalation of methylene chloride vapors. A volatile liquid found in greasers, solvents, and paint removers. This time, the Coroner had reported that the four visitors died from Carbon Monoxide Toxicity. This case was not an on purpose poisoning of Carbon Monoxide. The vehicle that was left on in the garage had been running for quite a while and passed through the A/C unit. Since the relative who went into the house returned with a headache, the investigating team was able to keep safe and was aware of what might have been the problem.
Pictures revealed the three lying on the bed with blood running down nose and the veins on their neck in a purple-red color. Their fists were also clinched into a position called “boxers pose”. This indicated that the Carbon Monoxide reached long enough into their blood stream and made the decedents seizure. Headache and nausea can begin when levels are 10 to 20%.
•20% commonly cause vague dizziness, generalized weakness, difficulty concentrating, and impaired judgment.
•30% commonly cause dyspnea during exertion, chest pain (in patients with coronary artery disease), and confusion.
•Higher levels can cause syncope, seizures, and obtundation.
Prevention involves checking sources of indoor combustion to make sure they are correctly installed and vented to the outdoors. Exhaust pipes should be inspected regularly for leaks. Cars should never be left running in an enclosed garage. Carbon Monoxide detectors should be installed because they provide early warning that carbon monoxide is free in a dwelling’s atmosphere. If CO is suspected in a dwelling, windows should be opened, and the dwelling should be evacuated and evaluated for the source of Carbon Monoxide.
Cause of Death
When it comes to being a death investigator one of the steps that you need to know is how to identify the cause of death. When you come to a site where a man has fallen from a 10 story building that does not always mean that the man jumped and tried to kill himself. Even at times the impact of hitting the ground may not even be the way the victim died. There are steps involved with being a death investigator that help to identify the cause of death. For instance, one of the main steps a death investigator identifies the cause of death is by performing an autopsy.
When it comes to performing an autopsy it can usually be put into six stages, Y-Incision, Removal of Organs, Stomach Contents, Sample Collection, Head and Brain examination, and Conclusion. An autopsy is one of the most important ways of figuring out the cause of death because it gives the medical investigator a firsthand look at the inside of the victim. This allows us to be able to see exactly what was going on with the victim’s internal organs at the time of death.
Another way we can determine the cause of death is at the scene itself. When a person dies no matter what the scene will be investigated. When an investigation happens the investigator will search the entire scene so that he can remake the scene so that he can see exactly what happened. Sometimes it can be an obvious suicide when there is a note written by the victim and no sign or foul play so they will be able to just close the case right there. But when you come across a scene where a suicide note is written but it’s not in the victims handwriting and the gun has prints from someone else on it, that is when a more serious investigation ensues and could be classified then in time as a homicide. There are many ways the cause of death can be determined at a scene, it takes a very large amount of training and a lot of experience and it can be traced back to the cause to nearly the exact second.
Determining Manner of Death
When it comes time for a forensic autopsy to determine the manner of somebody’s death, several factors can come into play that may make the determined manner seem illogical. There are five different types of manners of death classified; homicide, suicide, natural, accidental, and unclassified.
Homicide is when the cause of someone else’s death is by the hand of another person. The most common homicide cases seen are murder. (gunshot wounds, stabbings, poisonings, etc.) However, homicide can also be determined as the manner of death in a case that appears to be entirely an accident. For example, if a teenager had his friend over his house and they were messing around with the father’s rifle; if the teenager’s friend accidentally shot him dead believing that the gun was unloaded, the manner of death would be classified as homicide instead of an accident.
Suicide is when the cause of someone’s death is by their own hand. This can include instances with self inflicted gun shot wounds, drug overdoses, jumping off of a tall building, and even purposely crashing into a semi truck. It can be easy to confuse suicide and homicide with one another. For example, if someone tries to commit suicide with a gun, they may end up shooting themselves multiple times to actually finish the job. This would make the case look very suspicious for foul play by the hands of another. Sometimes homicide and suicide can be intertwined with one another if someone decides to shoot someone and then take their own life afterwards.
Accidental deaths are when the cause of death was not natural, nor homicide or suicide. This can include drug overdoses, car accidents, electrocution, and fires, etc. Accidental deaths can also be confused with homicide when there is always a possibility that if a fire occurred, someone else started it; especially when the fire was determined to be started in multiple different locations. Multiple deaths at one scene are an indicator of an accident since they are likely from an environmental cause if there is no trauma to the bodies, or any sign of forced entry in a location.
Natural deaths are when the death could have very well occurred regardless of where the person was and the decisions they made that day. (or night) Death due to old age, and/or with medical problems is the most common cause of natural deaths. Emotionally upsetting instances may provoke something such as a heart attack to occur.
The unclassified manner of death is used in any death where drugs were the underlying cause to the death entirely, and not a contributing factor. These deaths may also come off as being “unexplained,” when it is hard to determine what exactly what the cause in the death.
Every death is going to have slightly different circumstances even if it is determined to be in the same manner. It is crucial that investigators thoroughly search the scene and obtain all clues and traces of evidence which may determine whether the death was planned by the victim, another person, or entirely accidental. Sometimes a quick look at the scene may reveal immediately what the cause of death was, especially in cases of homicide. Determining the manner of death is a process that can be either easy or hard to complete in a death investigation.
For more information:
Jason Manning & Kristopher Crowley