As a police officer and a crime scene investigator, I often find errors in the depiction of crime scenes in thriller novels. In prior blogs, I’ve discussed the mistakes I’ve seen writers make with weapons, such as Tasers and pistols. Today, I’ll begin a series on ways to avoid common crime scene pitfalls. One thing to note: a few of the things I’m writing about are specific to Illinois. Although much of this information is simple biology and physics, certain procedures may vary by jurisdiction.
One such procedure is the Coroner’s office. In Illinois, we utilize the medical examiner system. The County Coroner is not necessarily a medical doctor. In fact, the only requirement to hold the office is to win the election. It’s entirely possible for a Coroner to not even have a high school diploma. Typically, the Coroner holds more of an administrative position and will send a Deputy Coroner out to death scenes.
The Coroner’s Office serves multiple functions. One is to notify the deceased’s next of kin. Usually this comes after positive identification has been made, either through ID cards, fingerprints, or even by someone present at the death scene who knows the decedent. At times, the Coroner may have to contact the family to have one of them make the identification.
When a death is reported, the police have first jurisdiction over the scene. Depending upon the police department’s policy, they may allow the Deputy Coroner to examine the body before the crime scene investigators have finished their investigation. Other departments will require the Deputy Coroner to wait outside the crime scene until their initial investigation is complete. Once the Deputy Coroner is allowed on the scene, the police relinquish custody of the body to the Deputy Coroner.
The Coroner will determine if there is to be an autopsy or not. Should that be deemed necessary, it will be performed by a doctor called a Forensic Pathologist, who serves as the medical examiner. Everything is carefully documented and photographed, both by the doctor’s assistant and by the police officer who witnesses the autopsy, or Post-Mortem Examination. A small tidbit of information: the police slang shorthand for autopsy is “post” (short for post-mortem).
The autopsy itself starts with an external examination. The body is cleaned and photographed before all scars, injuries, and tattoos are documented. If there is some question about the deceased person’s identity, the police will fingerprint the body, either at this stage or once the entire autopsy is finished.
For the internal examination, the assistant makes a y-shaped cut on the chest and abdomen, removes the front of the ribs, and excises the internal organs. The pathologist will dissect each organ, checking for injury and disease. He takes blood samples, both for DNA and toxicology. Vitreous fluid from the eyes is tested for the presence of drugs and alcohol. The last step is the removal and examination of the brain.
The pathologist will issue a preliminary cause of death, with a typical stipulation that this diagnosis is pending the results of the toxicology testing. In rare cases, there may be no immediate indicators of the cause of death. Once the test results are in, the Coroner holds an inquest in front of a Coroner’s Jury. The jury will decide if the cause of death was homicide, suicide, accidental, or natural. However, this ruling is non-binding. They could rule a death accidental, but a prosecutor could still charge the death as a homicide.
In my next entry, I’ll move into police procedures at death scenes. This series will also include information on specific areas of police investigations, such as fingerprints, footwear, and blood spatter, as well as ways to determine how long a person has been deceased. Stick with this information and these scenes in your novels will be much more believable.