As someone interested in writing crime novels, especially those involving forensic investigators and police detectives, will love this post.
While specific details may not end up in your crime novel, it’s good to know a little about the proper procedures involved in investigations. Not only will it give you credibility with your readers, but you can use deviations from proper procedures to make it more difficult for your villain to get caught!
On TV and in movies, you will see almost every body in the morgue with a Y-incision—the telltale incision of an autopsy. It might make you think everyone undergoes an autopsy after death, but they don’t.
When an Autopsy is Performed
A coroner, medical examiner, or pathologist performs an autopsy if the death is suspicious or upon request.
If someone died in a car accident, and it’s clear from external evidence what caused their death, no autopsy will be performed.
But if it was a fender bender, and the person didn’t sustain life-ending injuries, the ME might crack open their chest to find out if they had a heart attack, but usually, they will look at the body and use the person’s medical history to determine the cause of death.
I witnessed a car accident where a man ran his truck into a tall curb and kept gunning the engine. We thought he was trying to go over the curb, but he was having a seizure.
He lived and everyone else was safe, but if he hadn’t, the coroner may have done an autopsy.
My eyewitness testimony, his medical history, and the scene may have been enough for them to determine the cause of death. In this case, his family may have needed to request an autopsy for confirmation. Thankfully, that was unnecessary.
Causes of Death
Many deaths are easy to explain. Most are from natural causes, but there are four other causes of death. Accidental, homicidal, suicidal, and the dreaded undetermined/unclassified death.
It’s not often that a coroner uses this designation. Only 5-10% fall into the undetermined category. About 90% of all autopsies are performed on suspected homicide victims.
However, if it’s clear from the evidence was killed by a gunshot to the head, no autopsy will be performed.
Photographs. Lots of photos. Taken at the crime scene and in the morgue—clothed and unclothed.
Visual examination of the body happens first. They look for trace evidence before they remove clothing. Then their clothes placed in evidence bags before the second visual examination. Each item goes in a separate bag.
Yep. Each sock gets a bag!
Measurements and weighing the body come next, which isn’t very interesting, but it’s necessary.
The coroner looks for wounds, bruising, etc. They are assessed and documented. If a visual examination is all that is needed, no one is going to crack that chest open to look at the stomach contents. We want to find the truth, while being respectful to the person and their families.
For some homicides, the time of death is difficult to estimate, so stomach contents may be used, but there are usually visual clues that are less invasive. (I’ll save determining TOD for another post.)
X-rays are taken before the ME makes an incision.
Let’s say your character has a body in their morgue that’s been stabbed three times.
Two are shallow, and one is deep. From the blood pattern at the scene and on the body, you determine none of them happened before death.
Their victim was already dead when they were stabbed. If there are no other visual clues as to why they died, this is when an autopsy will be performed.
Now, let’s say the coroner in your story opens the body and looks at the victim’s heart. They see clearly that the person had a heart attack. Is it necessary that they continue their autopsy? Probably not. They have a reasonable cause of death.
So, the case just took a turn.
Changes to Charges
It’s no longer a homicide case. When the perpetrator is found, they will be charged with abuse of a corpse—a misdemeanor or a fifth-degree felony rather than a first-degree felony. Lucky perp. 😊
Not all charges will change, but it’s possible, and that’s one more reason autopsies are an important part of the process.
It’s imperative to know the process, but don’t do a ton of research if it’s not going to end up in the book.
Detailing procedures like autopsies will probably only be revealed in a forensic novel or a detective novel.
Chances are, an amateur sleuth won’t be around for the actual process. So, you will need only cursory knowledge of procedures if you’re writing a mystery with an amateur sleuth as your main character.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this rather strange, but interesting post.
Happy Writing and Revising!
Kristin Noland – Speculative fiction and crime fiction editor