Death is an inevitable part of life and a natural process that everyone will eventually experience. However, when a death is sudden, unexpected, or suspicious, it becomes a matter of concern, and a thorough investigation is necessary to determine the cause and manner of death.
A death investigation is a complex process that requires a multidisciplinary approach involving law enforcement agencies, medical professionals, and forensic specialists. Ehline Law and our personal injury wrongful death attorneys will discuss the stages of the death investigation to help you understand what happens behind the scenes after losing a loved one.
The Importance of Death Investigation
A death investigation is crucial in unexpected, unexplained, or suspicious deaths. A death investigation aims to determine the cause and manner of death. The cause of death refers to the underlying medical condition or disease that led to the person’s death, while the manner of death refers to the circumstances surrounding the person’s death. The five manners of death are natural, accidental, suicide, homicide, and undetermined.
A death investigation involves a systematic and thorough approach to collecting, analyzing, and interpreting evidence to determine the cause and manner of death. It requires collaboration among agencies, including law enforcement, medical examiners, and forensic specialists. The ultimate goal of a death investigation is to provide answers to the deceased’s family and bring closure to the case.
Stages of Death Investigation
The death investigation process involves several stages, each of which plays a crucial role in determining the cause and manner of death. The following are the stages of death investigation.
Notification and Initial Response
The first stage of death investigation is notification and initial response. This stage begins when someone reports a death to the appropriate authorities, such as the police or the medical examiner’s office. Authorities then respond to the scene to secure the area and collect evidence. The initial response involves ensuring the safety of the scene, identifying and separating witnesses, and preserving evidence.
The first responder’s role is critical in death investigations since the first responder is responsible for securing the scene and collecting initial evidence. They must take steps to prevent contamination of the scene and ensure that evidence is not destroyed or tampered with.
A medical examiner or any other law enforcement officer may carry out the following:
- Interview the witnesses
- Record the deceased’s demographic information
- Records down their medical history
- Take pictures of the decedent and the accident scene
- Gather information that could help determine how the death occurred
- Collects other relevant evidence or items to help with the investigation.
Forensic investigators at the accident scene have the skills to immediately estimate the time of death by assessing the decomposition process, and they can determine the cause of death and death manner by checking the body for signs of trauma, cuts, or bruises.
They will collect physical evidence, such as fingerprints, DNA samples, and bodily fluids. Investigators will also look for signs of trauma, such as bloodstains, gunshot wounds, or bruises. The investigators will also search for any weapons or objects that may have led to the person’s death.
The scene investigation is crucial in determining the cause and manner of death as it provides valuable information about the person’s activities before their death, potential witnesses, and potential suspects.
Transporting the Body
When the medical examiner properly examines the body at the accident scene, they may require the emergency services to transport it to the local Coroner’s office for further physical examination.
The post-mortem examination involves a thorough examination of the body to determine the cause and manner of death. It may include toxicology, histology, and microbiology tests and aims to identify any underlying medical conditions or diseases that could have led to the person’s death.
Organ and Tissue Donation Prior to Examination
Sometimes a family may request an organ and tissue donation, which the medical examiner may only entertain after discussing with the Coroner whether it affects the examination’s integrity.
Examination processes may include external examinations and autopsy examinations. The medical examiner or the forensic investigator will determine the type of examination by assessing the deceased’s body based on their medical history, death circumstances, and an initial review of the body.
In the external examination, the medical examiner would systematically review the deceased’s body by assessing the injuries to determine whether the death occurred due to natural causes.
Sometimes, a decedent may not have external injuries, making it challenging for the medical examiner to determine the cause of death. In these situations, they would conduct tests like x-rays, toxicology sampling, and a partial internal cavity review.
An autopsy is a complete examination where the medical examiner assesses the body externally before dissection. The autopsy examination process can take several hours to complete and may involve taking samples of bodily fluids, tissues, or organs for testing.
Family members with reservations over the autopsy must speak to the medical investigator assigned to the case, who will discuss it with the Coroner’s office before considering your request.
Once the medical examiner conducts the necessary examinations and identifies the body, they will reach out to the decedent’s next of kin and transfer the body to their designated funeral home.
In most cases, the death investigator contacts the next of kin to discuss the details of the examination report and how the accident occurred. However, if there is suspicion over the decedent’s death, they may withhold some information to maintain the integrity of the ongoing criminal investigation.
Completing the investigation documents can take some time. Depending on the circumstances, the medical examiner would either want to conduct additional laboratory tests or carry out a further review of medical records and other relevant reports.
Depending on the type of examination carried out by the medical examiner, they may issue several documents, including the following:
- Medical examiner certificate
- The external examination report
- Autopsy summary report
- A detailed scientific autopsy report
- Toxicology report
- Other death-related documents.
Summary: Three Phases of Death Investigation
Although there are many different stages of a death investigation, in short, there are three phases to it, which includes:
- Examination phase: Before starting an external or autopsy examination, the medical examiner will collect all necessary evidence and pictures to begin the investigation process.
- Correlation phase: During this stage, the medical examiner will put all the information, including the evidence collected and the examination report, to put together the case.
- Interpretation phase: When they compile all the evidence and examination reports, the medical examiner will start the interpretation phase, where they will determine the cause of death and whether there is a need for further investigation.
What to Do If You’ve Lost a Loved One in a Possible Crime?
Family members often check up on their loved ones, which is why they could be the first ones to discover their loved one’s death if they were a victim of a crime.
If you come across an unattended death of a loved one, it is crucial that you immediately call 911 and move away from the area. Touching the body could disturb the investigation site and have potential health risks. Let the investigators take care of the death investigation process to determine the cause of death and arrest the culprit responsible for losing your loved one.
A law enforcement investigation could help lead to evidence that can help capture the person responsible for the loss of your loved one. When that happens, you must immediately speak to an experienced wrongful death attorney to bring a civil action against the culprit and seek the justice and compensation you deserve.
Schedule a Free Consultation with Ehline Law About a Stages of the Death Investigation
If you’ve lost a loved one due to another’s negligence or intentional acts, contact us at (833) LETS-SUE for a free consultation, as you may be able to seek compensation.