Scene of Death

It is advisable for forensic examiner to visit the scene of death whenever possible. Common cases requiring scene visits include homicide, suspected homicide and obscure cases. In the context of Nepal, forensic examiners visit the scene of death whenever requested by Nepal Police. It is not advisable to visit crime scene alone and he/ she should be guided to the scene by investigating police officer.

The list of equipment that may be required at the scene include:

  • Swabs and containers for blood and body fluids
  • Plastic bags, envelopes, paper, spare pen and pencil
  • Body charts for recording external injuries
  • Waterproof apron and rubber gloves, Hand lens, electric torch, mini-tape recorder
  • Thermometer, syringes, sterile swabs
  • Dissection set, including handsaw (if autopsy is to be performed at a remote location)
  • Cutting needles and twine for body closure, digital camera with flash

The main objective of the scene visit crime is to access the environment, circumstances, position and condition of the body when found. Where no professionals for evidence collection are available, the doctor must try to assist in collection of evidence himself, while remaining within the limits of his expertise. The medical personnel should accept the instructions of police officers in relation to the approach to the body. Photographs must be taken from many angles. In case of blood pool or splashes present at the scene, a detailed photograph of each area must be taken to assist in studying for patterns. Photographs of dead body should be taken in relation to its position of surrounding fixed objects.

Skin can be palpated for accessing temperature, eyes, limbs, head and neck should specially be examined for any lesions. Rigor mortis, livor mortis and algor mortis can be examined to correlate with the changes during autopsy. If the Scene of Crime Officer requires any samples at this stage, it should be collected before the body is moved. Without disturbing the evidential value, the body can be moved with caution, to look at the sides and under-surface.  Every case is unique in its own way and a set method would be extremely tedious as well as time-consuming. The only aim should be to not disturb the scene and create an artefact, which can make the entire investigation inadmissible in court, reasoned to defect in sample collection.

Crime scene and time since death:

The investigating officers are first to reach the scene of death, followed by medical experts. Especially in unattended deaths, the time of death is one of the most frequent queries by police and family members.

Any methods used to calculate time since death has to been considered an estimate and medical experts should avoid deducing, by whatever means, the exact time. An estimate of time of death can always be wrong and non-scientific; hence, it is always advisable to answer such queries with caution. Unofficial information can be given to investigating bodies to help assist with the case, but documenting the definite time is a futile exercise without further research in the matter.

Based on changes seen after death, like cooling of the body temperature, rigor mortis and hypostasis present during the scene visit, one can estimate the time since death, which may again vary due to numerous factors including build of the victim, clothing worn, variation in temperature with time and micro environment, abundance of body fat, etc. The insertion of a thermometer into the body orifices during scene investigation, as mentioned in some textbooks, is controversial and can result in developing artefacts.

The body should be cautiously kept in a body bag or wrapped in plastic sheet, with edges secured. The function of a doctor at any scene of suspicious death is to observe the circumstance in which death occurred, preserve fragile evidence and supervise the removal of the body. The doctor is a part of a team of specialists, and the multi-disciplinary approach based death-investigation requires cooperation and coordination.