The Autopsy Part I: External Examination
I can’t believe I haven’t written about this yet. Most of you have probably never been to an autopsy and while words alone can not provide the true flavor of the experience I think it may help to briefly explain the process. Coroners and Medical examiners usually perform an autopsy for any suspicious or unattended death. In the United States they do not need the permission from any person or entity to perform the autopsy. Most pathologists will be sensitive to certain religious or cultural protocols but they are not legally bound to adhere to them. One reason the medical examiner can perform and autopsy over the protest of the family is that family members may be suspects. Imagine how easy it would be to commit a murder if, as the spouse, you could prohibit the medical investigation into your wife’s death. That could be a real recipe for disaster.
In the United States we have a mixed system of Coroner and Medical Examiner offices. Most of these jurisdictions are defined by counties and major cities. Some may even be defined by judicial districts. Some rural states don’t have forensic pathologist and may have to drive a body to another state for an autopsy to be performed. Once the body arrives at the coroner’s office, the procedures may vary from case to case and office to office. Some pathologists want the body left sealed in the body bag until they begin the autopsy. This procedure may also happen with bodies sealed with an evidence seal in homicides. Other times an attendant or investigator may fingerprint the body prior to autopsy. They may also take x-rays and log in personal effects from the victim’s clothing. X-rays may show anything from foreign objects (choking), surgical devices, bullets, or even knife tips. Before any incisions are performed however, an external examination has to occur.
The external examination typically begins with photographs. We take pictures of the clothing, any visible injuries, and especially the face. It’s important to photograph the body from different perspectives. This is our one chance to get the body photographed properly. If we forget to photograph something we may never get a chance to go back. Just concerning the head we will take pictures of the face, right side, left side, neck, top, and back of the head. We may then take close-up photographs of injuries, jewelry, needle marks, and any distinguishing marks like tattoos, moles, or birthmarks. Then we remove the clothing and take a new round of photographs. It’s important to photograph the body from all sides and perspectives. Some areas that may get over looked include the soles of the feet, inside of the mouth, and a close-up of the neck.
The next step is the collection of evidence. The clothing is pretty easy. Most of it may get cut off but you have to make sure you don’t cut through any damaged areas. We also look for trace evidence. If the hands are bagged we’ll open those and scrape fingernails for trace DNA. We’ll also look for hairs and fibers, some of which may fluoresce with an alternate light source. If the victim died from a gunshot wound we’ll also look for gunshot residue. If there is any suspicion of a sexual assault then we will collect a “rape kit“. Once all the evidence has been collected then the body is washed. Dried blood and dirt is cleaned off and if any injuries are more visible they are photographed again! Check back in a bit and we’ll discuss the internal examination.
Posted on August 3, 2012, in The Autopsy and tagged autopsy, coroner, Crime Scene, csi, detective, fiction, forensics, GSR, gunshot residue, medical examiner, murder, thriller, tom adair, trace evidence. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.