Natural Death in the Forensic Setting: A Study and Approach to the Autopsy

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Although unexpected natural deaths comprise a large proportion of the cases seen in the forensic setting, the investigation of these cases remains a unique challenge. Some cases are straightforward; however, others require special examination and dissections, as well as the use of special dissections and ancillary studies. For the forensic investigator to accurately assign a cause and manner of death, one must be aware of the differential diagnoses, common scenarios, and typical victim.

The authors reviewed all forensic cases referred to the Forensic Section of the Medical University of South Carolina over a 15-year period from January 1989–December 2003. The number of natural deaths occurring in adults (age 18 years and older) was 6932, compared with the overall number of 13,227 cases. The natural deaths were then analyzed as to autopsy findings, cause of death, cardiac versus noncardiac, age, race, and gender. Current techniques, special dissections, and ancillary studies that can assist in the classification of these deaths in the forensic setting are reviewed.

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