Medicolegal Death Scene Investigation


The NIJ guide provides an excellent summary for the medicolegal crime scene investigation. Upon arrival at the scene, the medicolegal investigator or investigators—that is, the medical examiner(s) or coroner(s)—identify themselves to the individual in charge of the scene, usually a law enforcement officer or a detective. The medicolegal investigator then makes sure that the scene is secured. Because medicolegal investigators have primary responsibility for the body at a crime scene, they should focus on their legal mandates. Their legal authority and responsibilities vary with jurisdictions, but in general, the medicolegal investigator performs all of the following tasks (National Medicolegal Review Panel [NMRP], 1999, p. 17):

· locate and view the body

· check for pulse, respiration, and reflexes, as appropriate

· identify and document the individual who made the official determination of death, including the date and time of determination

· ensure death is pronounced, as required

Once death has been determined, the medicolegal investigator works with other crime scene personnel as appropriate in the documentation of the scene and preliminary investigative details. The medicolegal investigator should, in most circumstances, perform a walkthrough of the area to assess the overall scene, the pertinent evidence, and the location of the body within the scene. In most jurisdictions, crime scene investigators from state or local police agencies collect evidence that is not on the body and ensure that the scene has been properly documented, photographed, and secured. Medicolegal investigators are involved only with the body and investigative functions pertaining directly to the body, including its secure transportation to the morgue for the autopsy.

Because photographs are used to document the scene, it is important that appropriate, comprehensive, and accurate photographs of the scene, with and without scale devices, are taken and preserved. (To see photographs taken at a death scene, click on the tab labeled Death Scene Documentation at the top of this page.) The NIJ guide (p. 29) recommends that the investigator take the following actions:

· photograph the body and immediate scene, including the decedent as initially found

· photograph the decedent’s face

· take additional photographs of the body after removal of objects/items that interfere with photographic documentation (e.g., body removed from car)

· photograph the decedent with and without measurements

· photograph the surface beneath the body after the body has been removed

The clothing, the body, the scene with and without the body, tattoos, scars, marks, indications of trauma or injury, personal artifacts, evidence of treatment or resuscitative efforts, and any other physical characteristics should also be photographed (NMRP, 1999).

Locating physical evidence that is essential to the determination of the cause and manner of death is critical to the scene investigation. The NIJ guide’s advice for the recognition and documentation of this physical evidence (pp. 25–26) includes taking the following actions:

· document the location where death was confirmed

· if the decedent was transported, determine how and from where the body was transported to scene

· identify and record any discrepancies in  rigor mortis  livor mortis , and body temperature

· check the body, clothing, and scene for consistency or inconsistency of trace evidence, and indicate locations of any artifacts found

· check for drag marks (on the body and the ground) or other indications of the body having been moved

· establish the decedent’s activities after receiving injuries, if any

· obtain dispatch (police, ambulance) records

· interview family members and associates as needed

The medical examiner will use the documented evidence, plus pertinent scene documentation such as photographs and sketches, to determine cause and manner of death.

Other physical evidence may help determine whether a crime was committed—and if so, how, and by whom—but personal property items often are important in determining how the death actually occurred, particularly if there are significant toxicological factors. For example, pills or signs of alcohol consumption at the scene may be relevant in both criminal and civil/noncriminal proceedings. The NIJ guide (p. 26) suggests the inventory, collection, and safeguarding of the following items:

· illicit drugs and paraphernalia

· prescription medications

· over-the-counter medicines

· money

· personal valuables

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