Forensic Magazine® | Articles | Dead Reckoning
While exhumations may be rare in the U.S., it is not unusual for any domestic autopsy to findinaccuracies in the stated cause of death. “You could write an article about doing 155 consecutiveautopsies at Presbyterian Hospital in New York City, or at the UCLA Medical Center, and the answerwould be about one-third of the time the autopsy would find the wrong diagnosis stated on the deathcertificate,” said celebrated pathologist Michael Baden, MD, Chief Medical Examiner for the New YorkState Police, and New York City's Chief Medical Examiner from 1961-1986.Even with the aid of modern imaging modalities like CT and MRI, autopsies will find missed significantdiagnosis in 30-40 percent of cases, Baden said.
Exhumation autopsies are normally only performed in the U.S. when issues of medico-legalsignificance arise. “I don't know how they missed that many homicides in Münster,” Baden said. “Tomiss children who've been battered, injuries from blows from beer bottles, and gunshot wounds thatwere not identified indicates that the bodies were poorly examined to begin with.”Baden said that would be unusual in this country, because if there is any thought of homicide then anautopsy is performed before burial. There are exceptions, however. Exhumation autopsies are doneon suspected serial deaths, such as when several babies die in one family, when a husband has anumber of wives die mysteriously, or one nurse is the common denominator in an inordinate numberof hospital deaths.“When the first baby suffocates or the first spouse is poisoned, you don't know that,” Baden said. “Butafter a series of deaths then we may do exhumations because of the suspicion that's raised that wasnot present when the first death occurred.” In other cases, a second, later, autopsy may be beneficial.“Even when a body has been previously autopsied, it is still possible to find lots of information thatwas missed during the first one,” Baden said. Baden used the example of civil rights leader MedgarEvers, who was shot in the back in 1963, a few weeks before President Kennedy was murdered. “Ittook 30 years and an exhumation of Evers’ remains 28 years after death to gather enough evidence togo to trial and convict the shooter,” Baden said.Medical examiners, however, are not in the business of solving murders. The role of the medicalexaminer is to determine what happened, not who did it. The body contains a wealth of information,even 28 years after burial. It took 30 years to get further information that led to the conviction of ByronDe La Beckwith in the Evers matter.“A second autopsy can pick up information that's focused, when you know what you're looking for,because you now have more information than at the time of the first autopsy,” stated Baden.Exhumations can be helpful because traces of most poisonous drugs can be found in the body longafter death. “That's one of the reasons we do exhumations here, because poisons weren't properlytested for,” Baden said.
Lack of Standards
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