Many questions are raised when a person dies unexpectedly or under suspicious circumstances: What caused the death? Why did it happen? Was it the result of a crime?
The forensic investigation is a process intended to answer these questions. A forensic investigation may entail an assessment by OCME forensic investigators, an autopsy performed by a medical examiner, radiology and laboratory tests, and review of medical records and reports from law enforcement agencies.
A forensic investigation may be done along with – but separate from – a criminal investigation by law enforcement.
All deaths in Maryland are recorded with a death certificate that lists, among other pieces of information, the cause and manner of death. When a person has a family doctor and dies from natural causes (i.e., the result of a disease), the doctor can complete the death certificate.
OCME is responsible for determining the cause and manner of death if a person is not under the care of a physician, or if the death is unexpected or occurs under suspicious or unusual circumstances (i.e., the result of injury), the medical examiner must be notified to begin an investigation and make sure the death certificate is completed. The criteria for OCME cases is defined by state law.
A forensic autopsy is a series of lab tests and examinations performed on a body to identify injuries or medical conditions that may have caused or contributed to death. The autopsy includes a thorough external and internal examination of the body. It is done by a forensic pathologist – a medical doctor who has been specially trained to recognize patterns of injury, collect evidence and investigate the circumstances surrounding a death.
A forensic autopsy involves a thorough examination of the body as well as internal structures and organs. Incisions are made in a manner that allows the funeral director to conceal them for a viewing service and funeral. Additionally, lab tests are performed to check for infectious diseases, alcohol, and/or drugs. A typical forensic autopsy takes about 2-4 hours but may require additional time to complete these tests.
An autopsy usually takes 2-4 hours and should not effect the family's plans for a viewing or funeral arrangements. OCME and funeral directors work closely to accommodate families' needs. In more than 95 percent of cases, bodies are released by OCME within 24 hours.
When state law requires the medical examiner to perform an autopsy, family permission is not needed. A family may object to an autopsy because of religious beliefs, as stated in Maryland Statute §5-310(b)(2). In this case, the Chief Medical Examiner will review the matter and determine whether it is absolutely necessary to perform an autopsy over a family's objections. In such cases, the medical examiner will discuss the situation with family members.
If, after review, the Chief Medical Examiner determines that an autopsy is required, the family can ask a court to intervene and grant an injunction to prevent the procedure until a hearing can be scheduled. These legal proceedings can take several days and will delay the release of the body to a funeral director for burial. It is important for family members to inform OCME immediately if they have any objection to an autopsy since most procedures begin upon arrival.
At OCME, forensic autopsies are only performed on cases that meet specific criteria defined by law. For other cases in which there may be questions about a death, pathologists in the community are available to perform private autopsies on a fee-for-service basis. A list of providers is available from the College of American Pathologists.
According to state law, after 72 hours bodies are transferred to the State Anatomy Board. They can be reached at 410-706-3313 or 410-547-1222.
When the cause and manner of death are not immediately determined at autopsy, the case is marked "pending." Cases are often pending because additional laboratory tests, review of medical records or other investigatory work are needed to establish the cause of death.
Families can proceed with funeral arrangements while the case is pending
As soon as the medical examiner determines the cause of death with a reasonable degree of medical certainty, a case is unpended. OCME sends a letter to the Division of Vital Records with the cause and manner of death. The funeral home is then notified so they can obtain the death certificate for the family.
The forensic sciences are an exciting and fulfilling profession. Unfortunately we are unable to provide career advice on an individual basis. There are several helpful sites and publications on the web, including the following:
Does OCME allow shadowing opportunities or visits so I can learn if this field is right for me?
Death certificates are provided to fineral directors when a body is released from the Forensic Medical Center. OCME does not issue death certificates to the public. For copies of death certificates, speak with your funeral director or contact
Division of Vital Records6550 Reisterstown Rd.Baltimore, MD 21215410-764-3038
Under Maryland law, in most cases autopsy reports are public records. To get a copy of an autopsy report and toxicology results (if any), the fee for first-degree family members is $25 and $100 for all others.
To request a copy, complete the OCME Autopsy Report Request or write a letter with the name of the decedent, your relationship to the decedent, the decedent’s date of death, and where to send the report. Send along with a check or money order to:
Office of the Chief Medical Examiner Attention: Records
900 W. Baltimore Street
Baltimore, Maryland 21223
An autopsy report may be read at OCME at no cost. Copying of the report is not permitted. To review an autopsy report in person, call 410-333-3225 to make an appointment.
Requests for other information or material must be accompanied by a court order or subpoena unless the Custodian of Records determines that compelling circumstances warrant the release of materials. If releasable, the contents will be copied at a cost.
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201 W. Preston Street, Baltimore, MD 21201-2399
(410) 767-6500 or 1-877-463-3464