“Autopsy vs. Investigation”

Dianna writes:

My sister recently was discovered by her husband , hanging in the barn. She lived in a rural setting and was isolated. There was a 2 year history of spousal abuse and in fact her husband had been charged and was convicted of assult against by sister. He served 6 weeks in jail, was on probation and required to receive treatment for anger management. I recently returned from a meeting to speak with the law enforcement who dealt with the case. They informed me that they were aware of a 2 year history of spousal abuse. They stated that they were wary when they were called to the scene because of the history. They said they could find no evidence that there was foul play involved and that it was a simple suicide by hanging. There was table at the scene with a large plastic drum on top. They said they saw a footprint in the dust and oil on the drum but did not check to see that it matched her shoe size (which was small for an adult – size 5) They also said that one of her shoes lay approx 20 feet from the body. They assumed that she had kicked off the shoe in her struggle. They also stated that there was no rigor mortis of the body.

After phoning the coroner, I was told that I could not ask for a full autopsy and in fact they did only a superficial or external autopsy. They did say that there was no tissue under the finger nails and no scratches or marks on her neck other than the ligature mark.. My question is … if she struggled as she died enough to kick off her shoe would she not have had some sign of grabbing the rope or trying to loosen it from her neck. I understand that in a short drop hanging, regardless of how committed the individual is to taking their life there is an automatic response to preserving her airway. The only toxicology study they did was for blood alchohol level. Nothing else. My second question is why would they not do a complete autopsy when there was a history of spousal abuse, she was isolated and found by her husband. Why did they not do a full toxicology screen? They also did not estimate the time of death. I would really appreciate any answer you could provide me with especially in what they look for in a short drop hanging. Thank you so much.


Not having worked the scene myself or having access to all the information, I don’t feel comfortable commenting on the particular circumstances of the death. I can however shed a little light on your questions about how the case was handled based on the general procedures of most coroner and medical examiner offices.

The reason you were likely told that you couldn’t ask for a full autopsy is that the general public doesn’t have the legal authority to request an autopsy. In many cases where there is an obvious cause of death like a gunshot wound, a crushed chest, or in your sister’s case a ligature around the neck, an autopsy isn’t deemed necessary to determine why the death occurred. Reason being is that all an autopsy is going to accomplish is to verify that someone died as a result of their trauma. That is why the extent of the coroner/M.E. investigation may only involve an external examination.

The best comparison is to think of a vehicle in a car crash. A mechanic doesn’t need to tear down the motor to figure out why the car doesn’t run when the engine has been pushed into the cab of the vehicle.

If I were in your position, I’m sure I too would be shocked that no one felt a full autopsy was warranted when taking into account the spousal abuse and isolation that were involved. However in my position, I understand that forensic pathology is limited in its application. In cases with no sign of trauma or foul play, the coroner/M.E. determines both the cause and the manner of death. In traumatic or suspicious cases, they only determine the cause of death and rely primarily on the law enforcement agency’s investigation when classifying the manner of death.

In other the words the coroner speaks for why the person died and law enforcement speaks for how the person came to be injured in the first place. The point here is that the coroner can only account for the cause of death. Neither an external exam nor an autopsy are going to tell how a person came to be injured or whether they were “helped along‿ with the circumstances leading to their death. Many law enforcement agencies have felt your frustration when their request for a full autopsy on an individual with a ligature or a hard contact gunshot wound to the head is denied. They are told what many families are told—an autopsy is only going to confirm that which is already known. Beyond that, any involvement on the part of anyone else is a criminal matter and by law falls under the jurisdiction of law enforcement.

The coroner/M.E. could have interviewed the husband on issues related to the how your sister was found, but does not have the legal authority to treat him as a suspect. Typically the end result is that in traumatic cases, the coroner/M.E. isn’t likely to officially classify a death as suspicious when it conflicts with the investigation of law enforcement. That’s not to suggest a conspiracy though. It’s just that the coroner has no evidence to prove otherwise. They may have a different opinion or a gut feeling, that something is amiss, but they can’t (or at the very least shouldn’t) base their conclusion on speculation. On the other hand, law enforcement tends to rely heavily on the impression of the coroner—if the coroner isn’t comfortable then law enforcement generally isn’t either.

As for the toxicology study, in cases where there is an obvious external cause of death a full tox screen is rarely done—the reason being that positive test results won’t do anything to change the manner of death. If someone puts a gun in their mouth and pulls the trigger, a likely cause of death is “Intraoral Gunshot‿ with a manner of “Suicide.‿ There may in fact have been drug or alcohol involvement that affected the person’s sense of reason, but the bottom line is that the person took their own life and the death is therefore ruled a suicide. Using the mechanic analogy again, the wrecked car may have had faulty brakes which played a major role in the crash, but the reason the car no longer runs isn’t damage to the brakes, it’s the damage to the car.

I understand that the presence of foreign substances in a person’s system may be of key interest to a family member who is trying to come to terms with what their loved one’s state of mind may have been when committing suicide, but for medicolegal investigative purposes it is essentially irrelevant. Specimens are typically held by a tox lab for a certain period before they are destroyed. If the family wishes to obtain samples for private testing, they can usually do so with a court order.

For information on the time of death issue, here’s a paragraph from “Agencies, Answers, and Assumptions.‿

Among the countless ways that crime scene dramas misinform the general public, “time of death‿ is perhaps the most misleading. In most cases there simply aren’t enough solid physiological markers to establish an accurate time of death, and the longer someone has been dead, the more difficult it is to be as accurate as Hollywood portrays. As such, it is not uncommon for a person’s “time of death‿ to be listed as the time that they were found. The time of the original call to 911 is usually the first documented time and serves as a solid “found‿ time. Please refer to my post on “Postmortem Interval‿ for more information on the subject.

Hopefully this information helps you in some way.

A Douglas

2 Responses to ““Autopsy vs. Investigation””

  1. August 15, 2006 at 7:06 pm

    Dianna, I hope you find the answers to what happened and that your sister’s husband is sorry for what he did to her before her death and pays for her death if he killed her.

  2. 2 Terri
    September 8, 2006 at 7:23 am


    I am sorry that you have so many unanswered questions about how your sister died. This must be very hard to deal with, considering the history of abuse. You will always wonder if her husband killed her and staged a suicide. Here are my initial thoughts off the top of my head, and please keep in mind that I am in no way a professional. I just tend to think a lot.

    I think it would be important to know if she had died before she was hanged. I wonder if she could have been strangled by hand and then hanged, which could explain the absence of scratch marks on her neck. Did they check to see if she looked like she had been dragged at all, which could explain the shoe far away from her body? And I can’t believe they didn’t check the footprint size. Any chance it is still there? Maybe you could go look. What did she hang herself with? Was there a knot, and if so, what kind of knot? A boy scout type knot, or a knot that looked like the person had no experience with making knots?

    Also her husband’s behavior could give him away. Maybe you could get a criminal profiler to talk to you about how her husband discovered her body. Would he be more likely to “find” her right away and call emergency, or would he tend to wait a while? How did he act when the authorities arrived? How is he acting now? Did he take out any life insurance policies on her before she died? Does he have another woman already?

    As for your sister, was she depressed? If she was abused she was likely depressed, and since she was isolated and abused, she could have resorted to suicide as an escape. Did she leave a note? Did she ever mention suicide? Did she seem hopeless? Did she have email that could be checked to see if she had any future plans that may indicate she had no intention of taking her life? If there is a computer that they used, perhaps it should be checked for any possible evidence, such as ways to commit suicide, or ways to stage one.

    I hope you can still get answers to some of these questions. With the history of abuse and her husband’s anger issues, a full investigation should have been done on him (in my opinion). Murder staged as suicide does happen.

    I’m sorry for your loss, and my heart goes out to you. If you get more information I hope you give an update.

    Take Care,

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