Forensic Examinations

What types of forensic examinations might be performed?

The type of examination performed is dependent on the Iowa Code, the circumstances of the death, and the information needed to appropriately determine cause and manner of death, and Iowa Code.  Iowa Administrative Code 641-127.3 defines the circumstances under which autopsies are required or recommended.

The forensic pathologist may decide to perform a limited examination.  Limited, or partial, examinations can range from external examinations to examinations of specific regions of the body.  In most cases, tissue specimens will be taken for future laboratory testing, including toxicology.

A complete autopsy is a systematic examination of the organs of a body to determine the cause and manner of death and to assess any pathologic changes that may be present.  The body is examined externally and internally to discover and document disease or injury.  Tissues are retained and may be utilized for microscopic examination.  In cases of death resulting from violence, evidence may be collected and later examined by the state crime laboratory or other agencies.

In some cases, it may be necessary to retain larger portions of tissues or even whole organs, such as when the heart or brain needs to be examined in detail.  After this examination, which may require many weeks, the residual tissues are disposed of in a manner similar to surgical specimens in a hospital. If you should want those tissues returned after examination, it will be necessary to contact our office shortly after the autopsy and arrange for the tissues to be sent to the Funeral Director when they are ready for release.

The autopsy and ancillary tests usually do not delay the release of the body to the next-of-kin.  However, the final results and completion of the autopsy may take 6-12 weeks or occasionally longer.

Will an autopsy always be performed?

In most cases of sudden unexpected death the investigation will disclose sufficient pre-existing natural disease that an autopsy may not be required.

Who can request that an autopsy be performed by the Polk County Medical Examiner’s Office?

County Medical Examiners, County Attorneys, and the State Medical Examiner have the statutory authority to request that an autopsy be performed in cases where death is suspected to have arisen from violent, suspicious, and unexpected circumstances (Iowa Code 331.802 (4)).

Why is an autopsy necessary if the cause of death seems obvious, such as a gunshot wound?

A complete autopsy examination can help determine details necessary for determining the manner of death and provide information that may need to be presented in court. Details in an autopsy report may include determination of direction of the wound, extent of injury, number of wounds, and range of fire (distance from muzzle to victim). Specimens are also obtained during the autopsy for possible testing for drugs and alcohol.

May a family refuse an autopsy?

Autopsies are done to answer medicolegal questions that are deemed in the “public’s interest” or to address a question of law. However, the County Medical Examiners recognize that an individual’s religious beliefs may be contrary to the performance of an autopsy. Both entities are open for discussion to try to accommodate the family’s wishes and to fulfill the legal obligation presented by your loved one’s death.

Who pays for the autopsy when one is requested?

The county of appointment (where the death occurred) is responsible for associated costs. The family is not charged for an autopsy when one is requested as outlined as above. However, when an individual’s death does not fall under the County Medical Examiner’s jurisdiction, the family may arrange for a private autopsy. The costs and arrangements for private autopsies are the responsibility of the requesting party.

Does the Polk County Medical Examiner's Office perform private autopsies?

No.  The Polk County Medical Examiner's Office only performs autopsies on those cases for which jurisdiction has been assumed by the office.