death investigationCaveats of Death Investigations: Time of Death

Every death should be treated as a homicide until the investigation and evidence proves otherwise.

Investigators have to deal with many things at the beginning of a death investigation to enable the medical examiner (coroner) to make the proper manner of death classification. Everything from ensuring the crime scene has been established and secured to preparing for a series of canvasses. Death investigations can only be accomplished through a team concept: investigator, medical examiner (coroner) and / or a medicolegal investigator (MLI). One of the most important and often confusing caveat of death investigations is time of death (TOD). An investigator must keep track of and be able to explain the four different times of death that get reported, especially in a court of law.

Knowing the time of death is important for so many reasons, but the most important one is to ensure that the perpetrator had the opportunity to commit the crime. The three elements that are needed for a suspect: Means, Opportunity and Motive, the opportunity is where defense attorneys will attack the case. Recording the time of death can be tricky. Investigators are not doctors and must be able to explain what they recorded, why they did, who provided it to them and what does it all mean.

Time of Death Explained

When investigators treat all death investigations as if it was a homicide, then they also bring with them the mindset that this case is going to trial. This means documenting everything that was done. Time of death is very subjective and investigators must remember that while preparing for trial. A defense attorney’s job is to provide enough reasonable doubt that his client did not possess the opportunity. The defense can easily trick an investigator when cornering them on the exact time of death since there can be as many as four in any case!

Physiological Time of death

The physiological time of death is the most rare of occurrences since many victims die outside of a hospital environment. Unless the person is hooked up to a machine and a doctor is in the room, an investigator will never know for sure the exact time of death. An investigator should never talk in absolutes when answering questions about the time of death since it could be a defense ‘trap.” Even though the physiological time of death is important, it still does not tell us the time the actual event occurred.

Time Person Found Dead

In an unwitnessed death, a body found floating in a river or a body with a stab / gunshot wound in a hotel room, the death certificate will state ‘Date and Time Found Dead.’ This is certainly not the time the person died – it could have been hours, days, months or years in some cases. When a body is discovered, the police are summoned to conduct the investigation. During the interview, investigators must try to narrow down the time the body was discovered. No one looks at their watch the moment they find a dead body and say, “Hey, it’s 9:02AM.”

Pronounced Time of Death

In all cases when a body is located, EMS, EMT or a doctor will respond and provide the patrol officer a pronounced time of death. This time is recorded on the initial paperwork that gets carried through the entire investigation. Death investigators must be very careful to make note that this pronounced time of death is not the time the person actually died. It is for paperwork purposes and can cause immense confusion on the witness stand. Defense attorneys will often refer to the pronounced time since it is the furthest from the ‘actual’ time of death.

Estimated Time of Death

Estimating the date and time of death will be based upon several factors and changes in the body: core temperature, livor and rigor mortis, degree of decomposition, entomology, vitreous fluid, and scene evidence such as mail and newspapers, etc. The medical examiner (coroner) or medicolegal investigator will work with the detective to conduct a complete examination of the body at the scene and in much more detail during autopsy in order to obtain a more accurate estimation. Unlike television, there will be no definitive, “I put the time of death at 11:37 PM last night.”

Investigators must deal with as many as four different recorded times of death during a criminal investigation. Not only does this complicate the investigation, it also provides an avenue for defense attorneys to exploit. Investigators should make a habit of listing the times of death on the front cover of the case folder and make defense attorneys explain which time they are referring to when they are being cross examined. If you find yourself in the position of answering a yes or no question that changes the dynamics of the time of death, ask permission to explain your answer.