What is the efficacy of exhuming a body in an attempt to obtain a suspect’s DNA? I have received a few inquiries on this topic from both crime writers and family members asking, “We want to see if there is DNA under the fingernails and / or saliva from bite mark evidence.”
Depending upon jurisdiction, exhumation can be a lengthy and complicated process requiring permits and court orders. It will require coordination with the local coroner or Medical Examiner. For surviving family members, this can be a painstaking process. For those with strong personal or religious beliefs, there may be opposition to exhumation. This may result in further legal action. Investigators need to take all of these matters into consideration prior to initiating this process.
This scenario is often played out on television shows and has crept its way into the mainstream media. Criminal investigation TV shows have changed the way people think about the possibilities. The chances of obtaining a suspect’s DNA from an exhumed body is highly unlikely. So, before you go through the expense and heartache (for family members) or spend the time writing the scene, just read this short post and think logically during an emotional time.
As I have told everyone before, you don’t get a second chance to do a death investigation right the first time. Collection of DNA exemplars from under the fingernails or from suspected bite marks must be done at the scene by investigators trained in the collection of DNA evidence. Or, collection can be done by the forensic pathologist prior to the autopsy. Bagging the victim’s hands at the crime scene will preserve trace and DNA evidence for the forensic pathologist and will prevent further contamination as the body is being removed from the scene and transported to the morgue.
Depending upon jurisdiction, there may be a period of up to twenty-four hours from crime scene to autopsy table. The body is removed from the scene in a plastic body bag, hopefully a new one, and transported to the morgue in a vehicle that is used for all human remains. Once the body arrives, it is X-rayed, photographed and prepared for autopsy.
Upon initial examination, and prior to washing the body, the forensic pathologist will collect any trace and DNA evidence from the body. This will include collection of the victim’s DNA (hair, blood, and swabs from body cavities), as well as collection of trace and DNA evidence from the potential suspect (scraping and clipping of fingernails, swabbing of body cavities, swabbing of suspected bite marks hair, and collection or any loose hairs or fibers). Following the collection of evidence, the body is scrubbed down and cleaned so that all injuries can be photographed and a full autopsy can be performed. During this process, any evidence that was not collected will be destroyed. Once the body is released to the family, a mortician will prepare the body for burial. Further cleaning and embalming will also destroy any evidence that may be left on the body.
Extensive autopsy procedures and post-mortem preparation by the funeral home make it highly unlikely that a suspect’s trace or DNA evidence will be retrieved from an exhumed body. Investigators, defense attorneys and prosecutors should take all of these factors into consideration when discussing the possibility of exhumation.