What Happens to a Body at the Coroner's Office
Handling of the "special processing cases" goes beyond the routine procedure of weighing, measuring, fingerprinting and photographing a body when it arrives at the coroner's office. These bodies--which include homicides, officer-involved shootings, in-custody deaths, SIDS fatalities and suspected child-abuse deaths--are taken 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 separate from the other bodies. All children under 14 are X-rayed to find any broken bones.
Last year, the Los Angeles County coroner's office handled 19,254 deaths including:
13,503 natural deaths.
2,760 accidental deaths.
122 with undetermined cause of death.
The Los Angeles County coroner's office annually averages about:
7,500 deaths handled administratively, requiring no examination.
5,000 full autopsies.
2,700 bodies examined by coroner's investigators at mortuaries.
2,300 partial, or Class "C," autopsies.
1,500 inquiries into surgical deaths.
20-25 autopsies performed each day, including holidays.
12 bodies visually examined, no autopsy.
1-3 autopsies performed daily per forensic pathologist.
350 bodies autopsied per forensic pathologist, well above the "reasonable" annual caseload of 250, according to the National Assn. of Medical Examiners.
250-300 bodies in house at any given time.
200 John Does (male), with about 10 remaining unidentified.
75 Jane Does (female), with one or two remaining unidentified.
150,000 photos printed in the coroner's office photo lab.
3,600 subpoenas received.
About the Coroner's Office:
166 on staff, including 12 forensic-board-certified pathologists.
An additional five forensic pathologist fellows are in training.
An average of two doctors are in court each day.
Did the fatal stab wound come from the single-edged knife found next to the body or, perhaps, another sharp instrument? The answer lies in toolmark analysis, performed in the coroner's laboratory. To come up with a profile of the weapon used in a deadly attack, the wounds on the corpse are compared with the alleged weapon, the murder site may be revisited, bones and skulls examined, stories compared with evidence, and the crime may be reenacted.
An odontologist, an expert in the structure, growth and diseases of the teeth, might be called in to make a mold of either the deceased's or the suspect's mouth so that bite marks may be compared. A consulting forensic archeologist might be asked to excavate a buried body or skeletal remains. Or a forensic anthropologist may be asked to determine the age and gender of the deceased.
A computerized microscope is used in the coroner's lab to determine the presence of gunshot residue in samples taken from a dead person's hands, clothing and face. "We're going after microscopic information," said Steve Dowell, research criminalist. Information uncovered in the coroner's lab is given to the forensic pathologists to help determine the mode and manner of death.
The coroner's office performs about 50,000 tests annually on the deceased. Qualitative tests are performed to determine the presence of drugs at the time of death, and quantitative tests are done to determine the amount. Results of alcohol, cocaine and carbon-monoxide tests may come back in a day, but others may take weeks.
Tests may show that a preexisting condition or disease was the cause of death. For example, a person's glucose and thyroid levels might be tested for abnormal elevation. Tissue samples may also be tested to denote microscopic changes caused by disease.
Tools Used During an Autopsy
A deputy medical examiner uses a variety of tools to perform an autopsy. Among those commonly used:
Mayo dissection scissors: Used for cutting.
Enterotomy scissors: Used to cut the intestines.
Stryker saw: Used to open the skull, cut bone fragments for DNA analysis or the pubic bone to determine gender and age.
Needles: Used for suturing.
Scalpel: Used to cut tissue samples.
Hemostats: A clamping and grasping tool.
Forceps: A grasping tool to take tissue samples and move aside body parts.
Knives: Used in dissection.
Syringe: Used for specimen collection, such as blood or urine.
T-chisel: Used to take the calvarium from the skull.
Sources: Los Angeles County coroner's office; National Assn. of Medical Examiners. Researched by STEPHANIE STASSEL/Los Angeles Times