An unattended death refers to any death occurring outside of medical care and supervision. This includes deaths in private homes, public places, hotels, etc.
A thorough investigation is crucial whenever an unattended death occurs. The goals are to:
- Determine the cause and manner of death
- Provide answers and closure for grieving loved ones
- Identify any potential foul play
Key steps in an unattended death investigation include:
- Initial response and securing the scene
- Evidence collection and documentation
- Autopsy and forensic testing
- Analyzing findings to establish what happened
The investigation process involves many meticulous steps to reach an accurate understanding of the circumstances surrounding suspicious or unexplained deaths.
What Happens When an Unattended Death Occurs?
When an unattended death occurs, the first priority is to contact emergency services so police can secure the scene and begin documenting evidence. The initial steps include:
- Calling emergency services to report the unattended death
- Police first responders arrive and take control of the scene
- First responders interview witnesses on-site
- Photographs are taken of the deceased and scene
- Demographic details of the deceased are recorded
- Evidence like weapons or objects related to the death are flagged
- The body is transported to the morgue or medical examiner’s office
Once the scene is secured, homicide detectives take charge of leading the on-site investigation through more in-depth witness interviews, photographs, and evidence collection. Any persons who had contact with the deceased before their death are sought out for questioning.
The body goes to the medical examiner’s office for autopsy and forensic testing to determine cause of death. The chain of custody is maintained to ensure no tampering or contamination of evidence.
Conducting the Investigation
The focus of the comprehensive investigation is on establishing the time and cause of death. Investigators use various techniques:
- Autopsy – The medical examiner performs a complete external and internal physical examination of the deceased. This involves dissection and analysis of organs and bodily fluids.
- Toxicology tests – Blood, urine, vitreous humors, and other fluids are screened for traces of drugs, alcohol, poisons, or other substances.
- Lab tests – Microscopic examination of tissues and fluids, cultures for viruses and bacteria, biochemical tests, and other lab procedures provide insights.
- DNA analysis – DNA from blood, hair follicles, semen, and tissue samples is extracted and genetically analyzed to identify persons of interest.
- Evidence collection – Crime scene evidence like fibers, fingerprints, weapons, blood spatter patterns, or bullet casings undergoes forensic study.
Findings from the autopsy and forensic testing help establish a timeline and sequence of events preceding the death. Investigators use witness statements and physical evidence to either rule out or confirm foul play.
If a crime is suspected, they seek to identify persons of interest based on opportunity, motive, and evidence linking them to the death.
Determining Cause and Manner of Death
After the investigation, the medical examiner makes a formal determination about the cause and manner of death.
- The cause of death is the medical reason or disease process leading to demise. This explains the physiological mechanism resulting in death.
- The manner of death categorizes how the death occurred and surrounding circumstances. Manners include:
Natural causes – Death resulting from disease or health conditions.
Accident – An unintentional injury or trauma led to death.
Suicide – Evidence indicates the deceased intentionally took their own life.
Homicide – The death was intentionally caused by the actions of another person.
Undetermined – The exact cause and manner cannot be conclusively classified based on available information.
Making accurate determinations requires the medical examiner to holistically review autopsy findings, lab results, medical history, death scene evidence, and investigative conclusions. This provides answers to grieving families and aids in legal proceedings if a crime is suspected.
Interpreting the Findings
After weighing the full body of evidence, the medical examiner makes the final determination about the cause and manner of death.
- Natural cause indicates health conditions or disease led to the death.
- An accidental manner rules the death was unintentional.
- A suicide manner means the person intentionally took their own life.
- Homicide points to deliberate killing by another.
- If the cause cannot be conclusively determined, the examiner may classify the death as undetermined.
The medical examiner bases their conclusion on autopsy results, lab tests, forensic evidence analysis, and investigative findings. However, the cause or manner may remain pending if additional tests and data are still needed to make a final determination.
Reporting the Results
Outcomes of the investigation are documented in reports like the death certificate, autopsy report, medical examiner’s report, and coroner’s findings. These provide official records explaining the death circumstances and are used for:
- Insurance claims
- Civil lawsuits
- Criminal prosecutions
- Official state mortality statistics
For example, if homicide is concluded, the autopsy and investigative results become evidence in a criminal case against the perpetrator. If the death is ruled accidental, insurance payouts to survivors can proceed.
Medical records, autopsy findings, and scene evidence from the investigation may be subpoenaed for legal proceedings. Meticulous documentation is essential so others can review the steps taken and evidence gathered during the investigation.
- In 2020 in New York City, a man was found dead in his apartment after not being heard from for over a day. Friends contacted the police, who arrived to the unlocked apartment to find the man deceased on the floor with no clear signs of trauma. The medical examiner conducted an autopsy and toxicology tests which detected heroin and fentanyl. His cause of death was ruled as an accidental overdose, and the investigation found no evidence of homicide despite initial suspicions.
- In a 2022 case in Colorado, a woman was found dead in her home by her daughter after missing their weekly lunch date. The death was ruled suspicious due to unattended circumstances. Homicide detectives led an investigation involving DNA tests, analysis of blood spatter patterns and eyewitness interviews. The woman’s boyfriend was identified as a person of interest based on DNA evidence and inconsistencies in his statements. He was eventually charged with her murder.
Unattended death investigations are detailed processes undertaken by medical and law enforcement professionals to determine how and why a person died. A methodical examination of physical evidence, autopsy results, and investigative findings provides facts and answers for the family. The outcomes document critical information surrounding the death in official records and help facilitate insurance claims and legal proceedings. While a difficult period for loved ones, a rigorous investigation brings closure and helps ensure justice is served if criminality is uncovered.
Resources for Further Learning
National Association of Medical Examiners – Overview of death investigation process
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Unexplained Deaths and Deaths in Persons with No Known Serious Underlying Medical Conditions – Investigative procedures for unexplained deaths
Medscape – Autopsies and Unattended Deaths – Details on autopsies and forensic testing