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  • Writer's pictureD. P. Lyle

Criminal Mischief: Episode #52: Forensic Science For Crime Writers: Autopsy


An autopsy is a scientific procedure. Its purpose is to examine the corpse for evidence of the cause and manner of death. This is done through a gross and microscopic examination of the body as well as toxicological (drugs and poisons), serology (blood), and any other ancillary testing the ME deems necessary.

The timing of the autopsy depends upon many factors. It may be done immediately or several days after the body is collected. Weekends and holidays, excessive workload, and the need to ship the body to a larger lab may each cause a delay. During this time period, the body is stored in a refrigerated vault. Storage of up to 4 or 5 days results in little noticeable deterioration of the corpse.

Clinical vs Forensic Pathology:

A clinical pathologist performs medical autopsies, which are designed to determine the cause of death and to search for the presence of any other diseases.

A forensic pathologist is concerned with the interface of pathology and the law. He performs forensic autopsies, which help determine the cause, manner, and time of death.

The forensic autopsy is performed to answer 4 questions.

1-What is the cause of death? (What illness or injury led to the death?)

2-What is the mechanism of death? (What physiological derangement actually resulted in death?)

3-What is the manner of death? (Was the death natural, accidental, suicidal, or homicidal?)

4-What was the time of death?

Who Gets Autopsied?

Violent deaths (accidents, homicides, suicides).

Deaths at the workplace, either traumatic or from poison or toxin exposure.

Deaths that are suspicious, sudden, or unexpected.

Deaths that occur while incarcerated or in police custody.

Deaths that are unattended by a physician, that occur within 24 hours of admission to a hospital, or that occur in any situation where the victim is admitted while unconscious and never regains consciousness prior to death.

Deaths that occur during medical or surgical procedures.

Deaths that occur during an abortion, whether medical, self, or illegal.

A found body, whether known or unidentified.

Before a body can be cremated or buried at sea.

At the request of the court.

Typical Steps in a Forensic Autopsy:

Identification of the deceased

Photography of the body, clothed and unclothed

Removal of any trace evidence

Measuring and weighing the body

X-raying all or parts of the body

External examination of the body

Dissection of the body

Microscopic examination of any tissues removed during the examination

Toxicological and other laboratory examinations

The Autopsy Report:

Each pathologist has his own method and style of preparing the final report, but certain information must be included. A typical format would be:

External Examination

Evidence of Injury

Central Nervous System (brain and spinal cord)

Internal examination of Chest, Abdomen, and Pelvis

Toxicological Examinations

Other Laboratory Tests

Opinion, which will include his assessment of the cause, mechanism, and manner of death.

For More Information pick up one of my Forensic Science Books:

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