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5 Legal Facts About Autopsies That You May Not Know

By Daniel Taylor, Esq. | Last updated on

You probably know that an autopsy is an examination performed on a body after death, usually to determine the cause of death.

But with the autopsy of Ferguson, Missouri, police-shooting victim Michael Brown making news (Attorney General Eric Holder has ordered a federal autopsy in addition to the state-performed autopsy and a private autopsy requested by Brown's family, reports Reuters), there are a few aspects of autopsies you may not be familiar with.

Here are five legal facts about autopsies:

  1. When is an autopsy required? The situations that can for an autopsy vary from state to state. Generally, however, an autopsy may be required whenever there is suspicion of foul play, a possible infectious or contagious disease, the death of a prison inmate, or (in some states) the death of infant. In addition, a family can typically request that medical examiners perform an autopsy.
  2. Why do toxicology tests take so long? "Awaiting toxicology tests" is a common refrain in news stories involving high-profile autopsies. So why does it take so long? It's typically because delays are caused by backlogs at toxicology labs, coupled with the need for samples to be sent to multiple labs for different types of testing. In addition, all tests must maintain a well-documented chain of custody in order to be used as evidence in court.
  3. Do you have a right to keep autopsy photos private? This issue has come up in federal courts. In 2012, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the mother of a toddler had a constitutional right to keep photos from her son's autopsy from being released to the media. If this is a concern in your case, you may want to speak with someone at the coroner's office or with an attorney.
  4. When can a federal autopsy be ordered? In addition to autopsies performed by county and state medical examiners, federal medical examiners may be asked to perform an autopsy at the behest of the United States Department of Justice when federal issues, such as civil rights, may be implicated.
  5. Are autopsies ever wrong? Although performed by trained medical examiners, autopsies do occasionally give incorrect or incomplete results. For example, a Chicago man who died only a day after winning a $1 million lottery prize was examined by Cook County medical examiners and ruled to have died of natural causes. Following a phone tip, however, examiners re-examined the man's body and discovered he had actually died of cyanide poisoning.

Preliminary results from the private autopsy requested by Brown's family found that the teen was shot six times, including twice in the head, reports The New York Times. The federal autopsy, ordered by Attorney General Holder, is pending.

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