Autopsy: The External Examination

Cadaver dissection table, similar to those used in medical or forensic autopsies.

Cadaver dissection table, similar to those used in medical or forensic autopsies.

In a previous article, we wrote that the objective behind an autopsy, also known as a post-mortem examination, necropsy, or obduction, is to examine a corpse to determine a cause of death or to evaluate any disease or injury that was present at the time of death. To make that evaluation, several activities are conducted once the body arrives at the morgue and placed onto an autopsy table.

  1. Measurements and Weight: This is the beginning of the actual postmortem examination. The medical examiner records this information along with age, sex, race and hair and eye colors when possible.
  2. Photographs: The body is photographed with clothing and without clothing. Many times, these photographs also are taken at a crime scene when the victim is part of that crime scene investigation. Photographs also are taken throughout various stages of the autopsy. More attention is paid when the victim cannot be identified, but in all cases every scar, tattoo and mole is documented with photographs.
  3. Clothing Examined: A forensic pathologist examines the clothing on the corpse to look for trace evidence such as hair or fibers or to find damage to the clothing, especially if it corresponds to injuries on the body. Once that examination is finished, the clothing is removed carefully and sent to the crime lab for further processing.
  4. Establishing TSD (Time Since Death): The medical examiner then tries to determine the time since death by examining the state of rigor mortis (stiffening of the muscles) and lividity (settling of the blood) when possible. Medical examiners are versed in body positions at time of death, thanks to experience, education and new information gleaned from experiments at the Body Farm. The Body Farm, or the Forensic Anthropology Center at the University of Tennessee, has provided many body identification methods for various state, local, and national law enforcement agencies and county medical examiners for almost thirty years. These body positions and other clues may tell a medical examiner how a person died or if that body was moved after death (outside of moving the body to the morgue).
  5. X-Rays: Not every autopsy requires X-rays, but they can be used to supply evidence about the extent of injuries and the type of murder weapon used, if any. X-rays are particularly useful to discover bullets that may have strayed from the original point of entry within a body so that bullet can be retrieved for examination.
  6. Trace Evidence: The victim is searched for trace evidence throughout the entire autopsy procedure. Hair, nails, body fluids and tissue are examined, photographed and pulled, plucked or cut to examine further. All trace evidence is sent to the crime lab for further investigation.
  7. Fingerprints: After all trace evidence has been collected, the victim is fingerprinted. These fingerprints are essential to help solve the mystery of an unknown victim, and they also help to confirm that the victim is the right person when there is doubt.

In an external examination, all wounds are photographed and measured. A search for broken fragments of a weapon is part of the external exam as well, as evidenced by X-rays. The depth of a wound, weapon fragments and the number of wounds can tell much about how a person died, if a weapon proved to be the cause of death. The manner of death also might be determined, then, as well. This information, combined with a thorough examination of a crime scene, often can tell the story of how a person died if that person was a homocide victim, a suicide or if the death was accidental.

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