Cause of Death

Sometimes when I hear a about a murder, I’ll hear someone say an autopsy is performed to determine a cause of death. A lot of times, the cause is obvious, like a gunshot. Why do they still have to do this ?

If it’s determined that something else killed the victim, like a heart attack, is the accused off the hook ?


Well, IANAL, but I think if you shoot a dead guy, you’re not going to be accused of much other than being a bit of a wing-nut.

From the many episodes of CSI that I have watched, I have concluded that people can sometimes try to disguise the cause of death in order to get away with a crime.

I assume that is the reason for the autopsy.

Sometimes it’s not so obvious, like people who died in a fire but bullets are found in them during the autopsy. Sometimes they’re trying to determine time of death, or if it appeared to be a murder on the surface but was a suicide (or vice versa), or if the person had any underlying health conditions that might be a factor. Maybe a dead woman was pregnant, and her lover killed her after an argument about the baby. Maybe the person had a chronic disease and is trying to get an insurance payoff to next-of-kin, but suicide won’t pay out and they don’t want to die slowly and be a burden.

Sometimes you can find forensic evidence during the autopsy as well. Anyway, you need to have a documented cause of death in murders and other violent deaths; to some extent it’s probably a formality.

They want as much information as they can get, too, anytime a person dies (whether or not it’s foul play). The bullet itself is not fatal; it has to do something to the inside of the person. Did it cause them to bleed to death, did it make them unable to breathe, did it sever important nerves? Also, if there’s any question about who actually did the shooting, looking at the path of the bullet after impact can give information on which direction it was fired from (was the murderer the guy on the balcony, the guy in the basement apartment window, or the lady across the street)?

It’s not quite as clear-cut as that. While you would be off the hook for murder, you could be charged with attempted murder. Consider the following scenario.

I want to kill Mr. X. In order to do so, I wait until I think he will be asleep, then I creep into his bedroom and shoot him while he is lying there. The ME performs the autopsy and determines that he died of a heart attack before I shot him, but I did not know this.

I could (and probably would) be charged with the attempted murder of Mr. X becuase I commited all the elements of the crime.

discalimer: IANAL, but this is my interpretation of the law to my understanding.

I’m only familiar with the law in Illinois, but I imagine most state’s have the same kinds of laws. In Illinois, the determination of whether autopsies are done is in the hands of the county coroner. In cases where the death is “suspicious, obscure, mysterious, or otherwise unexplained and in the opinion of the examining physician or the coroner the cause of death cannot be established definitely except by autopsy,” the coroner is supposed to have an autopsy done. In cases such as you pointed out, where the cause of death is obvious, autopsies are still performed because, if there is even a chance of it being a homocide, the State will have to prove beyond a reasonable doubt, what the cause of death is. That’s why a vast majority of violent deaths are given autopsies.

I am also not a lawyer, or a police officer or any such thing, but I have taken/am taking Administration of Justice classes at the local community college, so I declare myself…an expert! In your attempt to kill Mr X, you committed a crime (trespassing), which you could, and most likely would, be charged with. Also (at least in CA) if someone dies as a result of your committing a crime, you can be charged with their murder. So, if the DA could put together a case saying that Mr X died, not because you shot him, but because you frightened him when you broke in, you would be charged with first degree murder. The real bummer is that Tyrone, your getaway driver (who was in the car the whole time) can also be charged with the murder of Mr X.