A Guide to Death Scene Investigation: Documenting and Evaluating the Body

Once the death investigator has evaluated the scene, he or she should document and evaluate the body. He or she should follow these steps:

Photograph the Body

Principle: The photographic documentation of the body at the scene creates a permanent record that preserves essential details of the body position, appearance, identity and final movements. Photographs allow sharing of information with other agencies investigating the death.

Authorization: Medical Examiner/Coroner Official Office Policy Manual; State or Federal Statutory Authority.

Policy: The investigator shall obtain detailed photographic documentation of the body that provides both instant and permanent high-quality images.

Procedure: Upon arrival at the scene, and prior to moving the body or evidence, the investigator should:

  1. Photograph the body and immediate scene (including the decedent as initially found).
  2. Photograph the decedent's face (never clean face, do not change condition).
  3. Take additional photographs after removal of objects/items that interfere with photographic documentation of the decedent (e.g., body removed from car).
  4. Photograph the decedent with and without measurements (as appropriate).
  5. Photograph the surface beneath the body (after the body has been removed, as appropriate).

Note: Take multiple photographs if possible.

Summary: The photographic documentation of the body at the scene provides for documentation of the body position, identity and appearance. The details of the body at the scene provide investigators with pertinent information of the terminal events.

Conduct External Body Examination (Superficial)

Principle: Conducting the external body examination provides the investigator with objective data regarding the single most important piece of evidence at the scene, the body. This documentation provides detailed information regarding the decedent's physical attributes, his/her relationship to the scene, and possible cause, manner and circumstances of death.

Authorization: Medical Examiner/Coroner Official Office Policy Manual; State or Federal Statutory Authority.

Policy: The investigator shall obtain detailed photographs and written documentation of the decedent at the scene.

Procedure: After arrival at the scene and prior to moving the decedent, the investigator should, without removing decedent's clothing:

  1. Photograph the scene, including the decedent as initially found and the surface beneath the body after the body has been removed.
  2. Photograph the decedent with and without measurements (as appropriate), including a photograph of the decedent's face.
  3. Document the decedent's position with and without measurements (as appropriate).
  4. Document the decedent's physical characteristics.
  5. Document the presence, absence and condition of clothing and personal effects.
  6. Document the presence or absence of any items/objects that may be relevant.
  7. Document the presence or absence of marks, scars and tattoos.
  8. Document the presence or absence of injury/trauma, petechiae, etc.
  9. Document the presence of treatment or resuscitative efforts.
  10. Based on the findings, determine the need for further evaluation/assistance of forensic specialists or technologies (e.g., pathologists, odontologists, alternate light source).

Note: If necessary, take additional photographs after removal of objects/items that interfere with photographic documentation of the decedent.

Summary: Thorough evaluation and documentation (photographic and written) of the deceased at the scene are essential to determine the depth and direction the investigation will take.

Preserve Evidence (on Body)

Principle: The photographic and written documentation of evidence on the body allows the investigator to obtain a permanent historical record of that evidence. To maintain chain of custody, evidence must be documented, collected, preserved and transported properly. In addition to all of the physical evidence visible on the body, blood and other body fluids present must be photographed and documented prior to collection and transport. Fragile evidence (which can be easily contaminated, lost or altered) must also be collected and/or preserved to maintain chain of custody and to assist in determination of cause, manner and circumstances of death.

Authorization: Medical Examiner/Coroner Official Office Policy Manual; State or Federal Statutory Authority.

Policy: With photographic and written documentation, the investigator will provide a permanent record of evidence that is on the body.

Procedure: Once evidence on the body is recognized, the investigator should:

  1. Photograph the evidence.
  2. Document blood/body fluid on the body (e.g., froth/purge, substances from orifices), location and pattern before transporting.
  3. Secure decedent's hands and feet in unused paper bags (as determined by the scene).
  4. Identify and collect trace evidence before transporting the body (e.g., blood, hair, fibers, etc.).
  5. Arrange for the collection and transport of evidence at the scene (when necessary).
  6. Ensure the proper collection of blood and body fluids for subsequent analysis (if the body will be released from the scene to an outside agency without an autopsy).

Summary: It is essential that evidence be collected, preserved, transported and documented in an orderly and proper fashion to ensure the chain of custody and admissibility in a legal action. The preservation and documentation of the evidence on the body must be initiated by the investigator at the scene to prevent alterations or contamination. In some instances, identification of trace evidence may require alternative methods (e.g., alternate light source, presumptive testing).

Establish Decedent Identification

Principle: The establishment or confirmation of the decedent's identity is paramount to the death investigation. Proper identification allows notification of next of kin, settlement of estates, resolution of criminal and civil litigation, and the proper completion of the death certificate.

Authorization: Medical Examiner/Coroner Official Office Policy Manual; State or Federal Statutory Authority.

Policy: The investigator shall engage in a diligent effort to establish/confirm the decedent's identity.

Procedure: To establish identity, the investigator should document use of the following methods:

  1. Direct visual or photographic identification of the decedent if visually recognizable(when authorized, a face may be cleaned to allow for identification after the initial photographic documentation is completed).
  2. Scientific methods such as fingerprints, dental, radiographic and DNA comparisons.
  3. Circumstantial methods such as (but not restricted to) personal effects, circumstances, physical characteristics, tattoos and anthropologic data.

Use available technologies to assist in decedent identification (e.g., www.namus.gov, National Crime Information Center).

Summary: There are several methods available that can be used to properly identify deceased persons. In some cases, the investigator should employ more than one method to confirm the identity of decedents. At autopsy, authenticated in-dwelling medical devices may also be used to confirm identification. This is essential for investigative, judicial, family and vital records issues.

Document Post-Mortem Changes

Principle: The documenting of post-mortem changes to the body assists the investigator in explaining body appearance in the interval following death. Inconsistencies between post-mortem changes and body location may indicate movement of body and validate or invalidate witness statements. In addition, post-mortem changes to the body, when correlated with circumstantial information, can assist the investigators in estimating the approximate time and location of death.

Authorization: Medical Examiner/Coroner Official Office Policy Manual; State or Federal Statutory Authority.

Policy: The investigator shall document all post-mortem changes relative to the decedent and the environment.

Procedure: Upon arrival at the scene and prior to moving the body, the investigator should note the presence of each of the following in his/her report:

  1. Livor (e.g., color, location, blanchability, Tardieu spots) consistent/ inconsistent with position of the body.
  2. Rigor (e.g., stage/intensity, location on the body, broken, inconsistent with the scene).
  3. Degree of decomposition (e.g., putrefaction, adipocere, mummification, skeletonization, as appropriate).
  4. Insect and animal activity.
  5. Scene temperature (document method used and time estimated).
  6. Description of body temperature (e.g., warm, cold, frozen) or measurement of body temperature (document method used and time of measurement).

Summary: Documentation of post mortem changes in every report is essential to determine an accurate cause and manner of death, provide information as to the time of death, corroborate witness statements, and indicate that the body may have been moved after death.

Participate in Scene Debriefing

Principle: The scene debriefing helps investigators from all participating agencies to establish post-scene responsibilities by sharing data regarding particular scene findings. The scene debriefing provides each agency the opportunity for input regarding special requests for assistance, additional information, special examinations, and other requests requiring interagency communication, cooperation and education.

Authorization: Medical Examiner/Coroner Official Office Policy Manual; State or Federal Statutory Authority.

Policy: The investigator shall participate in or initiate interagency scene debriefing to verify specific post-scene responsibilities.

Procedure: When participating in scene debriefing, the investigator should:

  1. Determine post-scene responsibilities (e.g., identification, notification, media relations and evidence transportation).
  2. Determine/identify the need for a specialist (e.g., crime laboratory technicians, social services, entomologists, Occupational Safety and Health Administration).
  3. Communicate with the pathologist about responding to the scene or to determine the autopsy schedule (as needed).
  4. Share investigative data (as required in furtherance of the investigation), for example, to disclose the possible existence of communicable diseases.
  5. Communicate special requests to appropriate agencies, being mindful of the necessity for confidentiality.

Summary: The scene debriefing is the best opportunity for investigative participants to communicate special requests and confirm all current and additional scene responsibilities. The debriefing allows participants the opportunity to establish clear lines of responsibility for a successful investigation. Complete processing of the scene may require an extended period of time beyond the initial scene investigation. This should be communicated between agencies beyond the initial scene, and investigators from different agencies need to stay in communication with each other throughout the entire time.

Determine Notification Procedures (Next of Kin or Interested and Authorized Individuals)

Principle: Every reasonable effort should be made to notify the next of kin or interested and authorized individuals as soon as possible. Notification of next of kin or interested and authorized individuals initiates the disposition of remains and facilitates the exchange of additional information relative to the case.

Authorization: Medical Examiner/Coroner Official Office Policy Manual; State or Federal Statutory Authority.

Policy: The investigator shall ensure that next of kin or interested and authorized individuals are notified of the death and that all failed and successful attempts at notification are documented.

Procedure: When determining notification procedures, the investigator should:

  1. Identify next of kin or interested and authorized individuals (determine who will perform task).
  2. Locate next of kin or interested and authorized individuals (determine who will perform task).
  3. Notify next of kin or interested and authorized individuals (assign person(s) to perform task) and record time of notification, or, if delegated to another agency, obtain and document confirmation when notification is made.
  4. Notify interested and authorized agencies of status of the notification.

Summary: The investigator is responsible for ensuring that the next of kin or interested and authorized individuals are identified, located and notified in a timely manner. The time and method of notification should be documented. Failure to locate next of kin or interested and authorized individuals and efforts to do so should be a matter of record. This ensures that every reasonable effort has been made to contact the family or interested and authorized individuals. When possible, notification should be performed in person.

Ensure Security of Remains

Principle: Ensuring security of the body requires the investigator to supervise the labeling, packaging and removal of the remains. An appropriate identification tag is placed on the body to preclude misidentification upon receipt at the examining agency. This function also includes safeguarding all potential physical evidence and property and clothing that remain on the body.

Authorization: Medical Examiner/Coroner Official Office Policy Manual; State or Federal Statutory Authority.

Policy: The investigator shall supervise and ensure the proper identification, inventory, and security of evidence/property and its packaging and removal from the scene.

Procedure: Prior to leaving the scene, the investigator should:

  1. Ensure that the body is protected from further trauma or contamination (if not, document) and unauthorized removal of therapeutic and resuscitative equipment.
  2. Inventory and secure property, clothing and personal effects that are on the body (remove in a controlled environment with a witness present).
  3. Identify property and clothing to be retained as evidence (in a controlled environment).
  4. Recover biological samples prior to release of the remains.
  5. Place identification on the body and body bag.
  6. Ensure/supervise the placement of the body into the bag and secure it.
  7. Ensure/supervise the removal of the body from the scene.
  8. Secure transportation.

Summary: Ensuring the security of the remains facilitates proper identification of the remains, maintains a proper chain of custody, and safeguards property and evidence.

Date Created: June 15, 2009