Autopsies By Statute

AUTHORIZATION In most states, autopsies in cases of suspicious death are authorized by medical examiners or coroners. Many states also invest this authority in county physicians; coroners' physicians; coroners'juries; justices of the peace; local magistrates; attorneys general; and district, state, and prosecuting attorneys. In a few instances, autopsies may be ordered by the sheriff or county manager.

Outside the military services, no federal law exists that supersedes state authority to order autopsies or move bodies. Within the United States, military law, not state law, applies on military bases with exclusive federal jurisdiction. Some installations have concurrent jurisdiction or partial legislative jurisdiction. Medical examiners or coroners who have military bases within their areas of jurisdiction can contact the Directorate of Engineering and Housing and the legal office at the military base to determine the style of jurisdiction (2).

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is charged by federal law with the investigation of the death of a President or other specified dignitaries, and as such displaces the sheriff or police department who would ordinarily conduct a criminal death investigation. Although this law has no provision that overrides the authority of the local medical examiner or coroner to move or autopsy the body, it has been so interpreted.

A statutory autopsy may be performed without the consent or even against the expressed will of the surviving spouse or next of kin, but there should be reasonable grounds, usually specified by statute, for a medical examiner or coroner to authorize such an autopsy.

OBJECTIONS TO STATUTORY AUTOPSIES Objections based on religious views must be handled with sensitivity. In Miami, FL, the Orthodox Rabbinical Council has rabbis who are specifically delegated to attend autopsies; they discuss the procedures to keep them to the minimum needed to serve the public interest (3). This usually entails the use of in situ dissection as much as possible. The State of New York now has a statute that requires a hearing before a judge if there is a religious objection to statutory autopsy. In these cases, the judge decides if there will be an autopsy (4). California, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York State, Ohio, and Rhode Island have restricted the discretion of medical examiners to order autopsies in the face of religious objections (5). Sensitivity in these situations can mean delaying the autopsy until the family members had time to discuss the matter and consult with an attorney, or it can mean omitting the autopsy when the public interest is outweighed by the religious objection, as in the case of a fractured femoral neck from a fall at home.

WHO MAY PERFORM AN AUTOPSY? In most states, autopsies conducted pursuant to statute may be performed by medical examiners and their deputies, coroners (if they are physicians), and coroners' physicians, county physicians and their deputies, or other designated physicians. Autopsies performed outside the purview of medical examiner or coroner statutes are conducted by permission of the person who claims the remains for burial (see below).

WHEN AND WHERE STATUTORY AUTOPSIES MAY BE PERFORMED In most instances, statutes authorize autopsies when the medical examiner or coroner deems them necessary as part of the statutory duty to determine the cause of death. This duty generally arises when death has resulted from violence (homicide, suicide, or accident) or from unlawful or criminal means. Some state laws require the medical examiner to determine the cause of death when death has occurred in a penal institution, has been caused by criminal abortion, or involves a possible threat to the public health, or when cremation is intended. In some states, statute or administrative code requires autopsies in certain types of deaths, such as the sudden infant death syndrome.

Statutes in some states also authorize an autopsy when the death took place without an eyewitness, when the decedent was not attended by a physician at the time of death, when death was sudden and unexplained, or when the death was of unknown cause.

SOURCE MATERIAL The laws governing medicolegal autopsies vary greatly from state to state. An excellent compi lation of the medicolegal autopsy laws of the 50 states, the District of Columbia, and the territories of the United States has been published by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) (6). This publication also lists addresses, and telephone numbers of medical examiners and coroners.

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  • jamila
    What are the laws governing autopsies in the state of ohio?
    14 days ago

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