Pathology Pathology is the study of disease, so forensic pathology is the study of injuries and/or disease in order to determine the cause of death.
Medical Examiner A medical doctor (MD) who works for the legal system to determine cause of death in legal cases. They conduct autopsies to determine not only the ultimate cause of death but also the manner and mode of death.
Coroner usually an elected official and does not necessarily have a medical degree. They would oversee the investigation but rely on the information given to them by forensic pathologists to make their decisions.
Investigation Cause (Mode) of Death The medical or forensic cause: Gunshot Blunt force trauma Heart Attack Decapitation Manner of Death Only 5 Possibilities: Natural Causes Accidental Suicidal Homicidal Undetermined.
Temperature Normal body temperature is 98.6˚F Body temp of a corpse drops 1.5˚F every hour A body is cool to the touch after 4-6 hours In 24 hours the body is at external temperature Several days after death Putrefaction (bacteria in the body release gases causing body to become bloated) occurs and body temp can rise to 127˚F
Rigor Mortis Begins ~4 hours after death Stiffening of body because of lack of oxygen in muscle cells Begins in eyelids and small muscles of jaw, then to neck and rest of body Is sped up by increased external temp and slowed down by cooler temp Sets in more slowly with overweight individuals Sets in more quickly when there has been a violent struggle (uses up energy in muscles) Completely sets in within 12 hours after death and lasts ~36 hours before body returns to non-rigid state
Livor Mortis Discoloration of skin after death Caused by gravity-induced stagnation and settling of red blood cells in small blood vessels Commonly referred to as “lividity” Occurs 6-8 hours after death Occurs in parts of body closest to ground (gravity!)
Before an autopsy can occur, a medical examiner will search for any physical evidence on the body: Conditional evidence – lividity, rigor mortis, odors, insects, position, clothing. Pattern evidence – bite marks, imprints, impressions, weapon marks, insertions, injuries, wounds Biological evidence – grass, leaves, wood, plants, pollen, flowers, insects, worms, etc. Chemical evidence – cosmetics, firearms, vehicle-related chemicals, drugs, alcohol, poisons, ink, oil, cleaning fluids, soil, glass Physiological evidence – blood, semen, urine, fecal materials, tears, milk, bile, tissues, bone, hair
Autopsy Weight, height, & physical characteristics are documented Body is photographed, x-rayed, and examined with alternate light source (black light) for stains Distinguishing characteristics – tattoos, scars, birthmarks Clips fingernails and toenails for further analysis If a rape case, swabs are taken of oral, anal, and vaginal cavities Fingerprints and palm prints Y-incision from shoulders down to abdomen Saw collarbone and ribs Internal organs are all removed, weighed, and measured Blood and tissue samples are taken from each organ If necessary, the scalp is peeled back, skull is opened and brain is examined