A heart-wrenching situation is the discovery of an unattended death. The very circumstances of an unattended death make the discovery of the remains traumatic. An unattended death is one in which a person dies alone and his or her remains are not discovered for a period of time. Indeed, days, weeks, or even months may elapse before the discovery of the deceased person’s remains. Certain protocols exist for the investigation of an unattended death in California.
Upon Discovery of an Unattended Death
An unattended death typically is discovered by a landlord, family member, or friend. The deceased individual goes unseen, ultimately prompting someone to check on the individual. 911 is called upon discovery of the remains and law enforcement is dispatched to the scene. Not knowing the cause of death, law enforcement officials treat the location of an unattended death as they would the scene of a crime. This is necessary inasmuch as one of the underlying causes of an undiscovered death is a homicide.
In addition to the police or sheriff being dispatched to the scene, the county coroner’s office will commence its investigation into the cause of death at the location of the remains as well. Typically, they are notified by law enforcement directly after the call comes in about the presence of a body at a location in the community.
Controlling the Death Scene
The first step in the investigatory process taken by law enforcement, in conjunction with the coroner, is to secure the scene. Again, the potential that the area is a crime scene is the default determination when the investigation commences. In other words, the location of the body will be deemed a crime scene until a clear determination is made otherwise.
As an aside, there are health considerations involved in securing the scene as well. Decomposing human remains, in addition to being alarming in many ways, are also the source of dangerous pathogens that can cause serious and even fatal illness or disease in some instances. Thus, the scene is not only secured to preserve evidence in the event a crime has been committed but also to ensure the safety and welfare of other people.
Law Enforcement at the Death Scene
The next phase of the investigation of an unattended death also occurs at the scene. In this phase, the police or sheriff focus on ascertaining whether evidence exists that the deceased person was the victim of a homicide. There is a trio of possible conclusions: homicide, not a homicide, or inconclusive. If law enforcement ends up unable to ascertain with certainty whether or not the death was a homicide, it will be treated as one and a case will be opened.
If the evidence at the scene renders it clear that the death was not caused by a criminal act, the police or sheriff will wrap up their work at the scene and depart. The coroner’s efforts, as are discussed more fully in a moment, are not nearly done, however.
If law enforcement suspects that a homicide has been committed, they will conduct a thorough investigation of the scene. This will include a painstaking effort to collect anything that possibly can be considered as evidence of what happened at the scene. In the event of this type of investigation following an unattended death, law enforcement investigators can end up working at the scene of the death for a day or even longer. The scene of the death may not become accessible to family members or landlords for a matter of days.
The Coroner at the Death Scene
While most of the coroner’s work associated with making a final determination regarding a cause of death takes place in the medical examiner’s office and at associated laboratories, work directed at ascertaining the cause of death must also be undertaken at the scene of the death itself. The coroner’s team can glean a good amount of information about the potential cause of death by examining the circumstances at the scene itself.
Of course, there are patently obvious pieces of evidence like a handgun near the remains. With that said, even that piece of evidence can lead to different reasonable conclusions standing alone: suicide, homicide, or homicide staged to look like a suicide.
Even if the police or sheriff is rather quick in finishing their work at the scene, the coroner controls access as well. The scene will remain inaccessible until the coroner’s office completes its investigation. In this regard, the coroner may maintain the remains at the death scene throughout a good part of its investigation. The positioning of the remains can play a significant role in evaluating other pieces of evidence considered, collected, or analyzed at the scene.
In the case of an unattended death, one of the important tasks undertaken at the scene itself is considering available evidence to determine the time of death. This evidence will include everything from the state of decomposition of the remains to the ambient temperature and humidity at the scene.
Ongoing Police or Sheriff Investigation
If evidence suggests a homicide, the police or sheriff will launch a standard full-scale investigation into the death. This will include everything from forensics investigation undertaken in conjunction with the county coroner and the state crime lab to witness interviews. Homicides which are not immediately discovered can prove to be challenging cases. Unfortunately, a regrettable percentage of these cases end up in the proverbial cold case files. This does not mean that they will never be solved. However, a resolution of such a case may be quite some time in coming.
Off-Site Forensics Investigation by Coroner and Autopsy
Once the coroner completes work at the death scene and has the remains transported to the medical examiner’s office, the bulk of the coroner’s investigation is undertaken. The work of the coroner is investigating an unattended death is multifaceted. One aspect of the investigation is an autopsy. An autopsy is a primary tool through which a coroner ascertains the underlying cause of an undiscovered death.
Odds are that a coroner is also going to want additional forensics investigation in the form of laboratory tests. This typically involves the submission of blood, tissue, and other types of samples to a laboratory for testing analysis. For example, tests to ascertain if a person might have suffered a drug overdose and died are examples of this type of laboratory analysis.
An autopsy normally is completed within 24 to 48 hours. At that juncture, unless the police or sheriff have put a hold on the remains, the body is released to next of kin and transported to a designated funeral home.
Laboratory tests can take weeks for results to be received by the coroner. In this interim period, the coroner will list the cause of death on a death certificate as pending. Once the cause of death is determined, the death certificate will be amended.
There are isolated situations in which a cause of death is never ascertained. In that type of situation, a final death certificate issues with the cause of death listed as undermined.