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When Autopsies are Performed | Print |

Whether to perform an autopsy is the discretion of the Medical Examiner if jurisdiction has been accepted. In general, if a reasonable and probable cause of death can be deduced from the decedent's medical history, the circumstances surrounding death, and an external examination of the body, an autopsy may not be necessary. On the other hand, public interest results in an autopsy being performed when death involves homicide, an inmate who dies in penal incarceration (unless it is a hospice situation with an expected death within the infirmary or a hospital), an individual whose death is suspicious, or deaths suspected to be due to injury of any type. Such deaths often result in legal proceedings which are facilitated by having well-document postmortem information available. False claims or allegations can also be more adequately addressed.

The forensic autopsy is a special kind of autopsy, performed for special reasons. It must be emphasized that there are differences between a hospital autopsy and a forensic autopsy. Reasons for doing an autopsy which most physicians learn during medical school, internship and residency are mostly medical, scientific and for academic reasons. The hospital autopsy is directed principally towards substantiating the accuracy of a clinical diagnosis, the effectiveness of therapy, to evaluate the extent of disease, to determine more completely the cause of death, or for quality assurance reasons.

The reasons for performing a medico-legal (forensic) autopsy include the following:

1. To determine the cause of death where it cannot be determined otherwise.

2. To collect evidence from the body.

3. To document findings useful in clarifying time and circumstances of death.

4. To obtain evidence aiding in the identification of the body.

The concept of "public interest" is of importance in determining which Medical Examiner cases require an autopsy. Public interest is often high in the following types of cases:

  • Homicides and deaths suspected of being homicides.
  • Deaths occurring in jail, prison, under police custody, or in other state or local institutions.
  • Suspicious deaths (suspected of being traumatic or due to foul play but not obviously so).
  • Unexpected and unexplained deaths suspected to be due to infectious agents or other causes of public health interest.

Other cases in which an autopsy is usually in the public interest include:

  • Sudden, unexpected and unexplained deaths in the young (including the Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) without any history of potentially fatal disease.
  • Occupational accidents and on-the-job deaths.
  • Suspected drug overdose or poisoning.
  • Airplane pilots.
  • Driver of a motor vehicle accident wherein other persons were involved.
  • So-called accidental gunshot wounds.
  • Unrecognizable bodies wherein identification is a question.
  • Any death in which the manner (natural, homicide, suicide, accident or undetermined) is in question
  • Unexpected deaths during surgery and therapeutic procedures.
  • Sudden collapse and death in a public place.
  • Apparent suicides, especially in public places.
  • Deaths of famous people or public figures

Cases that may not require an autopsy often include the following:

  • Apparent natural deaths in the elderly.
  • Apparent natural deaths in persons of any age with a history of potentially fatal disease if the circumstances of death are known; are consistent with death being due to that disease; and there is no evidence to the contrary.
  • Delayed injury deaths if the nature and circumstances of injury are determined and well documented.

In general, if a reasonable and probable immediate and underlying natural cause of death can be deduced on the basis of the decedent's medical history, the circumstances surrounding death and a careful examination of the body, an autopsy is probably not necessary. It is our general practice, however, to perform an autopsy whenever death results from the immediate effects of an injury (or poisoning) or death or is suspected as having resulted from an injury (or poisoning) because of the high likelihood that such deaths will raise legal issues. We also perform an autopsy when death is sudden, unexpected, and not reasonably explained, even if death appears to be due to natural causes.


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Fulton County Medical Examiner

430 Pryor Street SW
Atlanta, Georgia 30312
Phone: 404-613-4400
Fax: 404-613-2463
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