Investigating a death can be an overwhelming experience. Imagine a crime of passion death with blood all over the scene (possibly the victim’s and the perpetrator’s) and a possible killer on the loose or the death of a young person with (rightfully) demanding family members, insistent neighbors, and politicians demanding instantaneous answers. For the death investigation to be done properly without missing some detail and coming to the wrong conclusions it must be methodical and guided by a steady hand. Otherwise a homicide can be viewed as an accident or a suicide as a homicide. It has happened, not in the office I worked in, but it has happened.
The 3 stages of a Death Investigation are Examination, Correlation, and Interpretation. All are equalling important, each stage needs the input of all involved in that stage of the investigation and each may need specialized input. In addition, each stage may require a bit of different expertise for it to be accomplished in the best interest of the investigation. Each of the 3 stages must be included in every investigation.
The Examination phase includes examination of the circumstances surrounding the death and what may have led up to the death. Also included in this stage is examination of the scene with supportive photo-documentation. Photos that document the scene well allow investigators to refer back to them through the later stages of the investigation as a reminder, as well as for forgotten and potentially missed details. The body is examined for its contribution to the investigation. External examination and documentation is always done. Internal examination (autopsy) may also be needed, sometimes it will not give up any real contributory information. Weighing all of the possible ramifications of, as we say in the trade, “cutting”, if the internal examination is deemed to offer nothing to the investigation it is not done. Also included in the investigation phase is the examination of the results of ancillary tests. Those tests may include toxicology testing, x-rays, other blood testing among the array.
During the Correlation phase information collected by all of the agencies involved in the investigation is brought together. The pieces of information collected are compared and contrasted. We consider what hangs together and what argues against each of the possibilities in our differential list of possibilities. What bolsters what? What lessens the possibilities? We work together to build a case and fit as much as possible together like a jigsaw puzzle.
The last stage of the investigation involves Interpretation. Here we develop not only the Cause and Manner of Death, but also the case, the story, that supports the conclusions we finally arrive at. The Manner is a multiple choice question. The Manner is either natural or not and the “not” category is further broken into homicide, suicide, accident, or undetermined. Undetermined is not used a lot, but sometimes you can’t answer the question. The Cause of Death is an open-ended question with nearly unlimited possibilities. It never ceased to amaze me just how varied the cause can be.
Slower and steady, going through all of the steps, is most often the way to get it right and we want to get it right the first time. Snap judgements can come back and bite you. Our constituents deserve nothing less.