While all death scenes require comparable investigative plans, they are not all the same. For example, there are laws and/or customs regarding jurisdiction, whether state or local police officers, deputy sheriffs, or a combined effort between agencies will conduct the investigation.
Likewise, each state legislature creates laws regarding the death of a human being and who will determine the cause and manner of that death. For instance, a few states still elect Coroners with no requirement they have any medical training or background. Medical doctors on a contract basis do the autopsies. The great majority of states, however, favor a more formalized medical examiner system with forensic pathologists conducting the autopsies and determining the cause and manner of death. The current trend is away from the old coroner system and to the more conventional practice of Medical Examiners.
In similar fashion, the state legislature determines who investigates a death. They may designate the investigative responsibility to the local or state police and in some situations the county sheriffs. In many states, it is investigators from the State’s Attorney or the District Attorney for the jurisdiction where the murder occurred. A few states place the overall control in the hands of the medical examiner, and they may rely on civilian medico-legal death investigators to respond to scenes and supervise the investigation.
I write about what I know and what I practiced for decades: Massachusetts law and custom. We are distinctive in certain ways, with statute law designating district attorneys to oversee all death investigations in their county. There are eleven district attorneys in the Commonwealth and each office has a staff of state police officers to conduct death investigations. The laws also require the district attorney’s designated investigators to work in tandem with the police department where the death occurred, or where they discovered the body. There are additional laws requiring the district attorney to work cooperatively with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. Essentially, each death investigation results in a task force. I can’t vouch for how other states handle cases, but I will say I know this system and when handled correctly, it works very well.
When investigators respond to the report of a death scene, they start with the simple belief that, like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two investigations are identical. Each has its own unique history. There may be resemblances to other cases, but to typecast it based on past cases would be a huge mistake, and pardon the pun, could prove fatal to reaching the right conclusions.
Police departments respond to dozens, if not hundreds of death scenes during the course of a year. Most often the death is ruled something other than a homicide, but investigators don’t know that until they have scrutinized and evaluated all of the surrounding circumstances. Therefore, they start with the premise that the death is a homicide and work backwards. Through a collection of information, coupled with a full medical evaluation, the cause and manner of death is determined. At times, the cause is somewhat evident like in a hanging, stabbing, or gunshot, but the manner of death (homicide, suicide, accident, or natural causes) can only be determined by matching the information learned by investigators with the medical discoveries from the autopsy. Essentially, we consider all possibilities, with the findings made only after eliminating all but the true one. The process can be relatively quick or extend over months or even years. At rare times, the manner is never determined and ruled unknown or pending. This can be the case where the remains are skeletonized or so badly decomposed an exact ruling is impossible.
Teamwork in a death investigation
No death investigation happens in a vacuum or by one person. They are team efforts. They do not resemble the book, television and movie versions where a rogue investigator scuffles through the crime scene, disregarding and destroying evidence, rolls over the body further contaminating the scene before riding off with lights and sirens blazing like a solo warrior hell bent on bringing the killer to justice.
The make-up and size of the investigative team is dependent on the circumstances surrounding the death. For example, if there is even an appearance of violence, the investigators must treat the area as a crime scene and have it processed by skilled forensic technicians. Then, they will summon the medical examiner or their designees for a viewing and, to prevent disturbing any evidence, they delicately remove the body for a detailed medical exam at the morgue by forensic pathologists. Legal considerations about the need for search warrants or custodial interrogations often require the input of the district attorney or state attorney’s office. In some jurisdictions, a prosecutor will be on the scene if the death appears to be a homicide.
The medical examiner or coroner is usually responsible for the custody of the body and when appropriate, they perform or order a forensic autopsy. They begin their inquiry with a thorough reading of the investigative and medical reports before reviewing the body for obvious signs of external damage. If the person required transport to the hospital and lifesaving measures were attempted, they may reach out to the attending doctor to determine what, if any, additional injuries may have occurred because of their work.
If there is an indication of pre-existing physical health issues from family members or friends or there is a large amount of prescription drugs at the scene, the medical examiner may contact the treating doctors of the deceased for a briefing on the medical condition of the deceased. If they determine the person was under life-ending care, the inquiry may end there. Similarly, if there were any indications that the person took their own life, the coroner or medical examiner would review any correspondence such as suicide notes, etc., and if the person was under medical care, they may interview the deceased’s mental health caregiver.
As the doctor proceeds with the external examination of the body, they look to match any injuries to the information from the police investigation before surgically opening the body for a thorough forensic inspection and evaluation. In cases of violence and/or significant trauma, they began by x-raying the body for any pieces of evidence. They continue by removing small samples of body fluids and pieces of organs for further lab testing to determine histology and toxicology findings. The examining doctor documents every action taken with notes, photographs or videos and often an audio recording. In cases ruled as homicides, the entire work product of the medical examiner goes to the defense as part of the discovery process, and they will most likely be required to testify at any civil or criminal trial as to the cause and manner of death.
It is usual for the case investigators to be present during an autopsy, and where the case appears to be a homicide, a prosecutor may be present as well. Crime scene technicians and ballisticians attend so they can take any forensic evidence directly from the medical examiner. This ensures an uncompromised chain of custody. The presence of team members is of benefit to all because it is the best forum to ask questions, share information, and learn from each other in real time. The conversations often result in the medical examiner pending final determinations as to cause and manner of death until the investigators gather further information that can shed light on any unanswered questions.
I hope this initial post sets the stage for several more on the investigative process. In upcoming entries, I will write about how crime scenes are determined, controlled, processed, and how the investigative team comes together. In addition, I will discuss how the Constitution and the Supreme Court shape the ground rules for the investigation.
If you have comments or questions, please email them through the portal found on the front page of the website. I encourage guest blogs as well, as long as they are appropriate to the purpose and intent of the website.