Frequently Asked Questions
What is a medical examiner?
A medical examiner is a physician, hence, the title medical examiner. The medical examiner is authorized by state statute with the investigation and examination of persons dying suddenly, unexpectedly, or from physical or chemical injury. The responsibility of the medical examiner is to determine cause and manner of death, and to document and preserve evidence as it relates to the decedent.
What is an autopsy?
An autopsy is an examination of a dead body. In the course of an autopsy the body is examined multiple times; first as it is received, then again after it is unclothed, and yet again after being cleaned (any loose dirt, blood or other foreign substances are removed). At each step, identifying features, injuries or other unusual features are documented with multiple modalities (i.e. photographs, verbal and/or diagram). The body is then opened, and each organ is examined, in turn, for the presence of injuries or pre-existing natural disease.
In the course of an autopsy, samples of various organs, tissues and body fluids are retained for additional ancillary studies, if warranted. The ancillary studies include microscopic examination ( Histology), drug testing ( Toxicology), and microbiology (bacterial and viral culture). Additionally, depending on the type of case, other items of evidence may also be retained: foreign objects (bullets, knife blades or tips, ligatures, etc.), scalp hair (for comparison to hair on a suspect weapon or vehicle), fingernail scrapings (for analysis of blood and/or foreign DNA), sexual assault swabs, gunshot residue test swabs, and so on. The HCME is also very active in the collection of trace evidence from dead bodies (collected under visible and alternate light sources).
What is the importance of performing an autopsy in someone in whom the cause of death is "obvious"?
The importance of examining people in whom the cause of death appears obvious is several fold. In the case of shootings or other fatal assaults the forensic pathologist, during the course of the examination, may recover bullets or other important trace evidence. In the case of motor vehicle occupants, it is important to determine who was driving and to assess driver factors, vehicle factors or environmental factors that might have caused or contributed to the crash.