Death can be classified in a number of different ways. A coroner or medical examiner and law enforcement tend to utilize two broad categories when they are called to the death scene and undertake some level of investigation. These expansive categories of classification are deaths that are suspicious and deaths that are not suspicious. Although you likely have heard the statement that a particular death is not suspicious, you may not fully understand what that terminology fully means.

Types of Deaths Coroners and Law Enforcement Investigate

Before diving more deeply into a discussion of how and why certain deaths are not classified as suspicious, understanding the types of deaths that coroners and law enforcement officials are called upon to investigate include:

  • Unattended deaths or undiscovered deaths
  • Suicides
  • Homicides
  • Accidents
  • Drug overdoses

Overview of Cause of Death and Manner of Death

Oftentimes, people use the terms “cause of death” and “manner of death” interchangeably. When discussing the meaning behind a death not being treated as suspicious, an accurate understanding of these two technical terms is important.

Cause of death means the illness, disease, or injury that set in motion the chain of events that resulted in death. Manner of death is circumstances surrounding the death, resulting in it being classified as natural or unnatural.

Definition of Suspicious Death

A suspicious death is one that is unexpected. In addition, a suspicious death is one in which the circumstances or cause initially are legally or medically unexplained. Suspicious deaths typically arise in situations involving suspected criminal activity. With that noted, suspicions regarding a death can arise in circumstances that initially are deemed natural, unattended, accidental, or suicidal deaths. 

Classification of a Death as Not Suspicious

A classification of a death as not suspicious occurs when a coroner (together with law enforcement) make a preliminary determination that no third party was somehow involved in nefariously causing an individual’s death. Examples of deaths typically classified as not suspicious are manifold and include:

  • Illness
  • Disease
  • Accident
  • Suicide
  • “Old age”
  • Natural Causes

The Death Scene and Determining a Death Is Not Suspicious

An investigation of the scene of death is an important element used to ascertain whether or not a reason exists to classify a particular death as suspicious or not suspicious. Although potentially one of the most disturbing death scenes, one involving an unattended death (or undiscovered death) helps to illustrate the point regarding the importance of a death scene investigation in determining whether or not a death initially should be classified as suspicious or not suspicious.

When an unattended death finally is discovered, law enforcement and the county coroner are called to the scene. (FYI – an unattended death is one in which a person dies without any witnesses present. In addition, the remains are not discovered for a matter of time that can be as long as days, weeks, or even months.)

The circumstances of the death scene are likely to result in an initial conclusion as to whether death is to be treated as suspicious or not suspicious. For example, if the cause of death was an injury caused by a firearm, the manner of death could be suicide, homicide, or accident. The circumstances at the scene might immediately result in a determination that the death was suspicious. This conclusion would occur if the death was the result of a gunshot and the firearm was not at the scene.

If the firearm is at the scene, an onsite investigation might be able to reveal that the gunshot was self-inflicted. If that is the case, the unattended death would be deemed to be not suspicious. On the other hand, it is possible that an on-scene investigation might not result in a firm conclusion that the gunshot wound was self-inflicted. In such a scenario, the death initially would be classified as suspicious, pending further investigation.

Further Forensic Investigation

The additional forensic investigation in the form of an autopsy, as well as lab tests, might be necessary to firmly classify a death as suspicious or not suspicious. Continuing with the unattended death involving a firearm, an autopsy may be able to confirm that the gunshot was self-inflicted. If that is the case, death would be deemed not suspicious. On the other hand, if a firm determination cannot be made that the death was self-inflicted, the status would remain that of a suspicious death.

The Final Effect of a Not Suspicious Death Determination

In the vast majority of deaths in California and throughout the United States, a question never arises about those deaths being classified as not suspicious. As has been discussed here, there are instances in which the circumstances surrounding death may cause an initial classification of the death as suspicious. Further investigation, including an autopsy, may result in a determination that the death, in fact, is not suspicious.

When a determination is made that death is not suspicious, any further formal investigation of that death that may have initiated previously is brought to an end. Using something of a cliché, “the case is closed.”