By: Joseph L. Giacalone
How many autopsies have I attended? Enough or that I have witnessed my fair share should be a sufficient answer. The autopsy is one of the most important steps in the death investigation, especially when the case is equivocal – a fancy investigative term meaning, “I have no idea what happened.”

Detectives should be required to by department procedure to respond to every death (even in obvious cases), attend every autopsy and make sure that they are on time. The detective’s role is more than that of observer, but to be an active participant as well. Autopsies are generally conducted the next morning and the case detective, if available  should be present.
Many times the case detective may be tied up in the investigation, with court or with lineups, etc., so a responsible detective that has intimate knowledge of the case should go instead. The investigator(s) should be prepared to answer any questions that the medical examiner / coroner has. The main goal for attending the autopsy is to aid the medical examiner / coroner in establishing the manner of death (see article link below) so that the case does not get labeled as “Undetermined.”

Detectives should take with them the following items:
Case folder
Updated investigative reports – ensure that witness statements if any are updated
Crime Scene photos (official)
Crime Scene photos (taken by investigators)
Wound charts prepared by crime scene technicians

The crime scene photos, especially those taken at the scene by the detective, often play a critical role in determining what transpired during the event. Remember, the medical examiner conducting the autopsy may not have been at the crime scene. It is the job of the detective to inform the medical examiner / coroner by painting a picture with words and then with photographs.

What Detectives should expect to witness at the autopsy:
A full cleansing of the body prior to autopsy
A full external examination
Complete set of exemplars – body hair, fingernail clippings, etc.
Photographing of the body
Fingerprinting in unidentified cases
A complete set of X-Rays
Internal examination of the body
Examination of internal organs
Toxicology – blood, tissue samples
Path of bullet / path of stab wound(s) if present
Range of fire (distance between muzzle of the gun and victim)

What detectives need to learn / obtain from the autopsy:
The Post Morem Interval (AKA Estimated Time of Death)
Manner, Cause and Mechanism of Death
Angle of trajectory
Length / depth of wounds
Wound charts
Evidence – i.e. ballistics
Gunshot Residue Testing (GSR)
Death certificate
After the completion of the autopsy, the detective should ask any follow up questions and or paraphrase the findings. Next, the detective should immediately record all of the findings on an investigative report for the case file as well as deliver any evidence to the laboratory for testing. Remember, if it isn’t documented, it wasn’t done.