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Medicolegal Death Investigation—The Nexus of Crime Scene Investigation and the Autopsy

by Dean A. Beers, CLI, CCDI, CFDI-Expert and Karen S. Beers, BSW, CCDI, CFDI-SME

Criminal defense investigators and attorneys play a crucial role in upholding the principles of justice, ensuring that every accused defendant receives a fair trial. To achieve this, it is important to explore and understand the unique relationship between crime scene investigation and autopsy evidence (and medical records for non-fatal events; used interchangeably here). Let’s look at the importance of establishing this nexus between the crime scene investigation and autopsy, as well as the defense investigation with the medicolegal expert consultation.

Medicolegal death investigation (MLDI) is a field founded in the medical examiner/ coroner systems, and is where medicine, forensic science, investigation, and the legal system meet. It is the unique process of unraveling the circumstances surrounding the decedent’s death, determining the Cause of Death (COD) and Manner of Death (MOD), and assisting in the accused’s defense. Central to these complex investigations is the important nexus between crime scene investigation and autopsy evidence. Let’s explore the importance of this connection and how it serves as the foundation for criminal defense investigation and litigation.

The Law Enforcement Crime Scene Investigation (CSI)
and Criminal Defense Investigator (CDI)

Crime Scene Investigation is the foundation upon which many criminal cases are built. It involves collecting physical evidence, documenting the scene, and preserving any potential clues that may later become crucial in the courtroom.

This meticulous process can make or break a case, as gathered evidence at the crime scene often serves as the starting point for the entire legal journey. The Criminal Defense Investigation will review the official investigation from the prosecution discovery, and retrace the steps and process to find any new evidence, from trace and physical to witnesses, and their own investigative findings reported to the defense attorney.

The Medicolegal Death Investigation and Expert Consultation
Medicolegal death investigators, often working in conjunction with forensic pathologists, have a dual responsibility: to meticulously examine the scene where a death occurred and to report these findings to the forensic pathologist in the performance of the autopsy. This process provides a comprehensive view of the circumstances of the death. The medicolegal expert consultation will review and analyze the official investigations of law enforcement and medical examiner offices from the prosecution’s discovery and follow the process and evidence to form their findings and opinions reported to the defense attorney.

This independent review and analysis of both official investigation records, reports, and photographs (including any video and audio recordings) will have one of four summaries of findings:

1. The official investigation was competent, with the official findings consistent with the facts and the evidence;
2. The official investigation was not competent, with the official findings consistent with the facts and the evidence;
3. The official investigation was competent, with the official findings not consistent with the facts and the evidence; or
4. The official investigation was not competent, with the official findings not consistent with the facts and the evidence.

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The Crime Scene Investigation

1. Collection of Evidence: Crime scene investigators (CSI) collect physical evidence, document the scene and preserve any potential clues. This evidence can range from bloodstains and weapons to the position of the body and signs of a struggle.
2. Witness Interviews: They also interview witnesses, first responders, and individuals who may have interacted with the deceased shortly before their death. These interviews help reconstruct the events leading up to the fatality.
3. Preserving the Chain of Custody: Maintaining a secure chain of custody for all collected evidence is vital to ensure its admissibility in court.

The criminal defense investigator will review each of these and conduct their own scene investigation, interviews, and the collection and preservation of evidence for protocols and chain of custody—as well as the impact on the defense strategy. 

The Value of Autopsy Evidence
The medical examiner investigation, including autopsy evidence, may include scene investigation and evidence independent of and concurrent with the law enforcement investigation. These are independent agencies and purpose—the former determining if a crime occurred for prosecution, while the latter public health and safety agency determines the decedent’s COD and MOD, as well as identifying the Time of Death (TOD). The first is a legal conclusion, and the second is a medical conclusion (medicolegal).

Most deaths are not due to homicide, however deaths other than homicide may have criminal charges (and/or civil liability). The medical examiner investigation is not a criminal investigation but rather an investigation to determine if the death was due to natural causes, an accident, suicide, or homicide. In rare cases, the MOD can be “undetermined.” Autopsy reports offer medical findings and conclusions that may be founded or challenge the prosecution’s claims; this makes them an essential tool for criminal defense investigators and attorneys. Please email us at beersda@DeathCaseReview.com for a copy of Dean’s CLI whitepaper titled: Reviewing and Comprehending Autopsy Reports for Investigators.

1. Cause and Manner of Death: The autopsy is an external and internal medical examination, including toxicology, to determine the COD and MOD. The external examination includes assessing for lividity and rigor mortis (assists with body positions and TOD) and any indications or absence of injuries—both incident-related and historical to the deceased. The internal examination is a surgical procedure to examine the body’s organs, tissues, and fluids in their anatomical position, including any injuries, and then examine each organ microscopically.
2. Medical Expertise: Forensic pathologists are specially trained medical experts beyond clinical and/or anatomical pathology. Using their additional medical training, they look for details and evidence not usually apparent at the crime scene or a routine medical examination. These examinations will identify injuries, diseases, or toxic substances that may have contributed to the COD/MOD.
3. Expert Testimony: The findings from the medical examiner investigation, including autopsy, are important to both the prosecution and defense in criminal cases. As an independent and neutral agency and expert, a medical examiner’s findings and testimony will clarify the medical issues for the court and help establish the connection between the deceased’s injuries in connection to the reported crime.

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The Nexus and Importance
The nexus between crime scene investigation and autopsy evidence is where the pieces of the puzzle come together. It is at this intersection the medicolegal expert, and criminal defense investigation, will:

Corroborate or Challenge Evidence: Autopsy findings can either support the evidence collected at the crime scene, reinforcing the prosecution’s charges, case, and evidence, or reveal inconsistencies favorable to the defendant.
Find Important Evidence: The autopsy can uncover important evidence that may have been missed or misinterpreted from the initial crime scene investigation and any evidence analysis. These inconsistencies and evidence may support the defense strategy—from a plea to trial, including any sentencing mitigation.
Assist in Identifying Suspects: By understanding the nature and extent of injuries with evidence from the crime scene investigation, medicolegal experts can offer insights into the possible identity and/or characteristics of other additional suspects.
Ensure Justice: Ultimately, the nexus between crime scene investigation and autopsy evidence is important to ensuring justice is served. It aids in determining whether a death was the result of a crime, accident, suicide, or natural causes, which has profound implications for both victims and suspects.

Criminal defense attorneys and investigators must recognize the importance of this nexus when developing their defense strategy.

1. Challenging the Prosecution’s Narrative: The prosecution relies on the evidence collected at the crime scene to find probable cause for charges, developing a narrative implicating the defendant. Using this nexus to closely examine their evidence and comparing it to the defense investigation and medicolegal expert findings, the defense attorney can identify inconsistencies to further the defense, including bringing to question the prosecution’s evidence and narrative.
2. Uncovering Alternative Explanations: The nexus of medical expert consultation and evidence can reveal alternative explanations for the victim’s injuries, COD, and other elements to the criminal charges—the alibis to charges not supported by the evidence. This can raise questions about the prosecution’s evidence and the defendant’s guilt.
3. Medicolegal Expert: Engaging a medicolegal expert as a consultant and giving testimony about the importance of this nexus—the crime scene investigation and autopsy findings also develops an empirical context critical to the defense strategy. Medicolegal experts can help the jury understand the complexities of both, as well as their implications.
4. Emphasizing Reasonable Doubt: By highlighting discrepancies between the crime scene evidence and autopsy findings, medicolegal experts can assist and also advise defense attorneys in developing reasonable doubt in their defense strategy. This doubt may result in a favorable plea, jury acquittal, or sentencing mitigation.

In criminal defense investigations and litigation, establishing the nexus between crime scene investigation and autopsy evidence is important to a strong defense strategy and is comprehensively developed by the medicolegal expert.

By closely examining these through this expert consultation and testimony, defense attorneys can uncover inconsistencies, challenge the prosecution’s narrative, and ensure that their clients receive a fair judicial process. This further upholds the principles of justice and protects the Constitutional rights of the defendant.

Medicolegal death investigation is a dynamic field and nexus to crime scene investigation and autopsy evidence. This unique relationship enables investigators to uncover the truth behind questioned deaths and foul play, provide answers to grieving families, and uphold the principles of justice and Constitutional rights. This nexus is the foundation of a thorough and effective death investigation, ensuring that the right questions are asked, the right evidence is gathered, and justice is served for the defendant and decedent.

About the Author
Dean Beers founded Associates in Forensic Investigation in October of 1987, and Karen Beers joined the agency in 1996. Since 2008 they have specialized in Expert Consultations and Legal Investigations nationwide in Personal Injury, Negligence & Death in Civil, Criminal and Probate litigation. Together they developed the Certified Forensic Death Investigator (CFDI) Program exclusively for Criminal Defense Investigators, have developed additional training courses, and authored articles and books in these areas.

We’re always listening. Send your story submission/idea to the Editor: kendra@orep.org.

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