Atlas of Forensic Pathology

CHAPTER 3 Basics of Death Scene Investigation 15

DOCUMENTATION OF POSTMORTEM CHANGES The documentation of postmortem changes at the time of scene investigation is important. In most cases, the forensic pathologist will be performing the autopsy the day following the discovery of the decedent, or later, potentially after the body has been held in a cooler for one to several days, or after being transported in a vehicle for several hours, all of which will alter the postmortem changes, but are unrelated to the time of death (Figure 3.2A-D). In addition, one important consideration regarding evaluation of postmortem changes at the scene is whether the postmortem changes fit the body position. For example, if fixed anterior lividity is present and the body is lying on its back, then the body has been moved before the investigator arrived. However, when a body has fixed lividity that only reflects the position the body was in when the lividity fixed and not the position in which the individual died. Comparison of rigor mortis to the position that the body is found in is also important, as rigor mortis may be inappropriate for the position in which the body is found (eg, a body with rigor mortis after being killed in a chair can then be dumped in an alleyway and appear to be sitting). Another important consideration is that in children and infants, rigor mortis can develop quickly due to small muscle mass, which can lead to a misinterpretation by law enforcement that the child died earlier than what was reported and police may then incorrectly determine that the history told to them is a lie. Answer: Documentation at the hospital may help determine whether a finding was related to therapy or was present prior to the hospital course. Examining the body at the hospital will also allow the investigator to obtain hospital blood, which, depending upon the time course, may be more reliable for toxicologic analysis and interpretation of drug concentrations than autopsy blood. However, while investi gation at the hospital can be performed, in most cases, investigation of the actual place where the person was transported from, especially in the case of infant deaths and some traumatic deaths, is vital to the investigation. Whether an investigation of the actual site where the decedent sustained their lethal event should be performed in addition to the hospital view is dependent upon the nature of the death, office policies, and preferences of the death investigator and forensic pathologist. PEARLS & PITFALLS A useful photograph is of the location where the body was found after the body has been moved. In one case, a body found only a few hundred yards from the individual’s residence was decomposed. The family alleged the body had been dumped near the house sometime after the death occurred. A photograph of the ground after the body had been moved showed soil that was heavily infiltrated with decompositional fluid, which refuted the family’s proposed scenario. PEARLS & PITFALLS Many potentially important findings at the scene cannot be recorded with pho tography, such as temperature, smells, weather conditions, or speed and flow of a water source, such as a creek or river, and should be documented in the written report so as to have a record. A photograph of the thermostat in the house, or a video of the turbulent creek or river could also be used to document such findings. One term for such findings is “ephemeral,” which is defined as lasting a short time. Another related and important consideration for bodies found outdoors is that the conditions at the time the body is found may not be the same as when the person died. For example, a rockfall upon which a hiker was found dead may have actually been a waterfall at the time the hiker died. FAQ: What is the purpose of viewing a body at the hospital that has already been transported from the location where the person sustained their lethal event?

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