Guns, Gams & Gumshoes

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Answering Writer’s Question: How Would a PI Request a Private Autopsy?

Posted by Writing PIs on October 25, 2010

Writer’s Question: How would a PI go about having a private autopsy done?

Guns, Gams, and Gumshoes’s Answer: If the body is with the state medical examiner, that agency is subject to the jurisdiction of the local court. The family of the decedent can seek a court order to have a private forensic doctor either attend the state-conducted autopsy or to conduct a private, second autopsy following the state’s.

How does a PI facilitate this? By obtaining the names, contact info, and pricing of private forensic doctors for the family. The PI might also (if a forensic doctor isn’t already known to the PI) conduct a background check on the doctor for the the family to ensure there are no skeletons in the doctor’s closet, no pun intended. The PI will make the arrangements for the doctor to appear at the autopsy, and often the PI will also attend and photograph the autopsy. In short, the PI will take steps to guarantee that the chain of custody of evidence and the documentation will be done with as much care and attention to courtroom details as the state would require of its own autopsy procedures.

State-conducted autopsies are typically done in coroners’ offices. Private autopsies are typically done in hospitals. The PI facilitating a private autopsy might also help reserve the room at the hospital.

Shaun, one of the “Writing PIs” of this blog, attended his first autopsy (which he watched as a public defender 30 years ago), which was a state-conducted autopsy performed at a mortuary. The reason it was done at a mortuary was that the county didn’t have a coroner’s office at that time. This same situation (no coroner’s office) may still occur in more rural areas in the U.S.

To supplement our above answer, we asked a fellow PI (Dean Beers, CLI, to elaborate on private autopsies (below).  Dean has an extensive background in medicolegal death investigations.

There are two autopsies – medical (or hospital) and forensic.

The former is often by a hospital pathologist and paid for by the hospital with the families permission and at their discretion.  This is only to determine/verify any disease process.  These are also referred to as medical curiosity.  This is not research, such as with donated to science, but similar and essentially the same otherwise.

The latter is a medicolegal autopsy that should only be performed by a board certified forensic pathologist or FP  (the other two being clinical and anatomical, with surgical being a subset, pathologists).  FPs are trained in both the legal issues and injury causations.  FPs primarily work for coroner and ME systems, sometimes jointly for a hospital (such as my jurisdiction).

A family may request a medical autopsy – but the decision is up to the hospital as they are paying the tab and it must fit within their criteria.  If the death is suspicious (and particularly involving an exhumation) then an FP should be consulted.  FPs are often ‘triple board certified’ and therefore have the most training and experience to determine if the death is natural causes, foul play or some other unusual circumstance.  The FP is also trained in the legal matters, including testifying as an expert.

There is no speed enhancement to a private autopsy – it may be slower in some cases (but not often, depending on the case load).  If the case is a coroner’s case, the body belongs to the coroner.  By statute the coroner authorizes (or declines) the autopsy.  If they authorize the autopsy the tab is to the state or county.  If it is declined (medical records review confirms a natural death) then the family can request a private autopsy after the body is released and they pay the tab.  They may also have a second autopsy, this may be by exhumation or an FP’s review of the autopsy report, investigative report, toxicology and microscopy (there is a lot involved in death investigations and autopsies) because these samples are preserved.  The private autopsy can be $2000-$5000, depends – and may involve only an FP or an FP and investigator for a full review/investigation.   Autopsies are not paid for by medical/health insurance.

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