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Sunday Special | Body of Evidence | Valley Briefing

Anatomy of An Autopsy

December 15, 1996

They've handled some of the country's most notable deaths: the suicide of Marilyn Monroe, the assassination of Sen. Robert Kennedy and, more recently, the slayings of Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Each day, examiners with the Los Angeles County coroner's office receive about 50 new cases, making the office one of the busiest in the nation.

Some bodies are examined at a mortuary by a coroner's official. Other cases need only a phone call to the deceased's doctor. More than a quarter of the cases require a full autopsy.

Deputy medical examiners search for clues to determine the cause of death. Their findings may help exonerate a suspect or help send one to death row.

"In an investigation, the body is the best piece of evidence. It doesn't lie," said Craig Harvey, coroner's chief of investigations.

Following sharp criticism of the coroner's office during the O.J. Simpson murder trial, reforms were instituted including a policy covering high-profile cases, expanded psychological background checks for anyone having direct involvement with coroner's cases, and the hiring of a jury consultant to advise experts on court testimony. Physical remains in high-profile cases are now kept in a locked crypt, and security on the autopsy floor has been tightened.

At the coroner's office, many people are involved in the process: from the investigators who, along with police, gather clues at a murder scene, to those in the toxicology lab who try to identify what drug caused the death, to board-certified forensic pathologists, who do autopsies every day of the year.

How Autopsies are Done

The word autopsy comes from the Greek word autopsia, meaning "to see with one's own eyes." 1. The doctor examines the outside of the body, marking scars, tattoos and injuries on a diagram.

2. The examination begins with a Y-shaped incision beginning at the top of each shoulder, meeting at the top of the breastbone and continuing straight down the midline to the top of the pubic bone.

3. Skin is pulled back to expose the breastbone and rib cage.

4. A pair of cutting shears similar to pruning shears are used to cut away a portion of the rib cage. The breastbone is removed and set aside.

5. Each organ is removed and visually examined for signs of disease, abnormality or injury. Each organ is weighed.

6. Each organ is placed on a cutting board and dissected. A piece of tissue may be taken from each organ for further study.

7. An incision is made along the back of the head, from ear to ear.

8. The scalp is carefully pulled forward to expose the top of the skull.

9. The top of the skull, the calvarium, is removed, exposing the brain.

10. The spinal cord is cut and the brain removed.

11. The brain is examined, weighed and dissected. If necessary, the doctor may send the entire brain or portions of it to be analyzed by a forensic neuropathologist.

12. The top of the skull is replaced, the scalp moved back into place and the incision is sutured.

13. A bag containing the organs is put back inside the chest cavity. The Y-shaped incision is sewn up.

14. The body is washed down, wrapped in plastic, tied with rope and placed in a refrigerated crypt.

Handling the Remains

Routine Cases: Body is weighed, measure, fingerprinted and photographed when it arrives at the coroner's office.

Special cases: These include homicides, officer-involved shootings, in-custody deaths, SIDS (Sudden Infant Death Syndrome) fatalities and suspected child-abuse deaths. The body is transported to a photo area where pictures are taken from various angles. The body is then undressed, wounds are photographed and the clothing is hung up to dry. Once it is dry, each piece of clothing is wrapped individually and placed in a larger bundle to be turned over to the appropriate law enforcement agency. The body is then washed and additional photos may be taken. If necessary, a full body X- ray is taken and the body is moved to a crypt where it will be kept separately. The bodies of children younger than 14 are X-rayed to find any broken bones.

Criteria for an Autopsy

The coroner's office is mandated by law to inquire into and determine the circumstances, manner and cause of all violent, sudden or unusual deaths that occur in Los Angeles County. The autopsy will determine the cause of death: natural, accidental, homicide, suicide or undetermined.

Anyone objecting to an autopsy has 48 hours to obtain a court order to stop the procedure. Families who request an autopsy must pay the price set by the county auditor-controller: $3,170.34.

Types of Autopsies

Full autopsy (A): With witnesses, extensive photography and X-rays. These "special processing cases" include homicides, officer-involved shootings, in-custody deaths, fatalities involving SIDS and suspected child-abuse deaths.

Standard full autopsy (B): Usually with no witnesses, extensive photography or X-rays. This is the type of procedure used when an autopsy is requested by family members.

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