Determining cause of death is the most important task a pathologist can perform during the course of an autopsy. In terms of legality it is a necessity for law enforcement to be able to prove beyond any doubt that the deceased has died of means other than natural causes.
Indeed such are the statistics of murder in parts of the world that it is a basic requirement for any individual who has died unexpectedly to have an autopsy performed on them in order to prove definitely the cause of death and rule out the chance of foul play.
Factors to Consider
Determining the cause of death is done by taking a number of factors into consideration.
Firstly was the deceased found at a location where he or she would not normally have been? Where they in a state of undress or have visible injuries not normally present in a natural death? If injuries were present were they the result of a knife or gun attack?
All of these questions have to be answered and answered satisfactorily in the eyes of a pathologist. In some deaths an inquest is necessary to decide on how an individual died – be it death by misadventure, accidental death or natural causes and a pathologist will be called upon to give expert testimony that will prove beyond any doubt what the cause of death actually was.
Deciding on a Cause
The exact nature of death is such that proving how it happened can sometimes be a difficult task. There might not necessarily be visible signs of how death occurred and likewise there might not be any history of ill health to fall back on as a means of diagnosis.
Medical records, psychiatric reports and statements from the next of kin are all required when death occurs without any warning. This is so that a detailed picture of the individual’s life can be built up along the way. This is useful if – for example – the deceased suffered from high levels of stress and where heart failure might have been a possibility.
But the main way in which the cause of death can be determined is by carrying out an autopsy; an autopsy offers definite proof as to the cause of death and also can shed light on how the death occurred. For example if the victim died as a result of a fatal stabbing an autopsy can prove that the perpetrator was either left handed or right, taller or smaller, heavier or lighter, all characteristics which are useful in building up a physical profile of the attacker.
In the same way an autopsy can prove if the deceased tried to defend themselves or was simply overcome by their attacker; again useful information when building up a picture of a crime.
In addition to these points an autopsy can also go some way to helping estimate the time of death, something that can be made tricky if the deceased has been found outdoors or has been found after a long period of being missing. Again determining the cause of death and estimating the time of death are hugely beneficial in any criminal investigation and offer up valuable clues as to the last moments or hours of an individual’s life before they died.