Assault on a dead body?

I was watching Grey’s Anatomy last night. There was a case of a patient who came with with a very large abdomen and was having difficulty breathing. The doctors discovered that the patient was building up fluid in his abdomen. Two interns were given the task of draining it. While they were draining it, the patient died on them.

The family didn’t want an autopsy done. However, the two interns were feeling so guilty that they went ahead and did an autopsy anyway. When they were caught in the act by their attending physician, she (rightfully) exploded on them. However, one of the things that she said in her rant was that they (the interns) could be charged with assault and go to jail.

Assault on a dead body? Is that true? Could they really have been charged with assault, or was it simply bad writing on the scriptwriters’ part? And if it is true, why can someone be charged with assault on a dead patient?

Zev Steinhardt

That does not sound right. Assault requires a victim and in this case the victim has left the building.

On the other hand, I would be eager to hear an answer from well-informed. How about ‘violating a sepulcher?’

I thought this was going to be a fun, law-school-type hypothetical that would allow a discussion on the difference between legal and factual impossibility.

No such luck.

No, there is no genral crime of assault as against a dead body. This is not to say that the conduct described didn’t violate other ordinances and laws concerning handling and disposition of corpses… but “assault” ain’t an option.


What kind of hypothetical would I have to posit to learn the difference between legal and factual impossibility?

Maybe assault on someone who is obviously dead (decapitated, for example), but a doctor did not yet pronounce him dead (making him legally alive)?

I seem to recall an UL about a rookie state trooper who came across an accident on the highway. The driver was obviously so much roadkill. However, since he was a rookie, he was somewhat spooked by the corpse. Nonetheless, he was waiting for medical authorities to come and take the body away. Sure enough, the corpse let out some gas at some point and the poor kid, already spooked, panicked and the kid emptied his gun into the corpse. As the story goes, he was charged with assault/murder since the body wasn’t “dead” yet.

Zev Steinhardt

There are laws in Pennsylvania about abuse of a corpse that might apply.

I thought it was called “desecretion of a corpse?”

You sneak into the sleeping chamber of your hated Uncle Steve, and fire six bullets into his quiet slumbering form, thus sending him permanantly into that bourne from which no traveler returns.

Or so you think. Unbeknownst to you, Uncle Steve suffered a fatal heart attack just as he was going to sleep that night, and he was stone cold dead when you shot his body.

What are you guilty of? Murder? Clearly not. You didn’t kill him. Right?

Attempted murder? But it’s impossible to kill someone already dead, right? So how can you have attempted a crime that was impossible to commit?

Sounds like the old chestnut about the guy no-one likes in the desert caravan… one traveller poisons his water while another, (not realizing that) drills a hole in it. Guy dies of thirst - who murdered him??

  • The guy who poisoned water that he never drank?
  • The guy who kept him from drinking poisoned water? :slight_smile:

How about the one where a man is pushed from the top of a building (by a mob hitman for not paying his “bills”)? At about the same time, another dude on a lower floor of the same building is in the process of shooting his wife. He shoots and misses. The bullet goes out the window shooting the man who is in the process of falling. Should the hitman be charged for murder, or should the husband?

Reminds me of the story of the 80 year old man arrested for attempted rape.
Got 'im for assault with a dead weapon. :smiley:

I’m leaving now…

Getting back to my original question for a moment -

I have no doubt that there would be some legal and professional consequences of their actions.

Assault, however, it seems from the reaction here is not one of them. I’ll just chalk it up to bad writing.

Can any lawyers tell me what legal problems they would face (the show is set in Seattle, Washington) or what the professional consequences would be? The attending mentioned that she (herself) could even lose her license. Is that correct?

Zev Steinhardt

Darn you Bricker for inducing flashbacks to those headache inducing days in Crim. Law. Dare not do this again or I shall taunt with English Lace that appears to be French Lace, and sic that poor fellow smoking oregano who think he’s smoking pot on you.

What kind of reaction is that? Somehow I have never felt that guilty. :eek: