A forensic death investigator (FDI), also referred to as a medical investigator, medicolegal investigator, or medicolegal death scene investigator, may also be considered a “medical detective.” Forensic death investigators are typically non-physician professionals who have education and experience involving death scene investigation and their role is to investigate any death falling under the statutory jurisdiction of the medical examiner, which includes all suspicious, violent, unexplained and unexpected deaths.
The FDI is responsible for the decedent whereas law enforcement personnel are responsible for the scene. An FDI performs scene investigations in much the same way as a law enforcement investigator, using many of the same methodologies, techniques, and tools, but for a different purpose. Law enforcement officers investigate a scene and interview witnesses to establish the elements of a criminal offense, and if no offense is identified, the police investigation is concluded. Forensic death investigators, however, are searching for information to assist the physician medical examiners in determining accurately the identity of the decedent as well as both the cause and manner of death. To accomplish these goals, the FDI considers information developed from the decedent and scene, and determines the extent to which further investigation is necessary.
FDIs have a combination of education and skills encompassing the areas of medicine and law in conjunction with ancillary disciplines. Primary areas of responsibility for an FDI include interaction with local, state and federal agencies; communication between next-of-kin, law enforcement personnel, funeral home directors, medical staff and physicians and other entities to identify and develop information relevant to a death. Scene investigations include elements of scene safety and protection, confirmation a death has occurred, identification of a decedent, photographic documentation of the scene and body, physical examination of the remains and documentation of physical changes associated with death, and collection of medications and evidence using appropriate collection procedures while maintaining a proper chain-of-custody. FDIs also provide factual and expert testimony during trials regarding a decedent.
Typical death scenes investigated by FDIs include those involving natural disease processes, injuries due to blunt or sharp force trauma, asphyxia (e.g., suffocation, strangulation, chemical, etc.), motor vehicles, assault or abuse, fire, poisons, electrocution, drowning, and environmental factors, among others.
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