When a person dies in police custody, or in jail or prison, one of the most important questions concerns why and how the death occurred. Winning a wrongful death case against a jail, prison or police agency requires more than proving that the jail, prison or police violated the law. It must also be proven that the legal violation caused the death. Proving the cause of death in jail, prison and police cases can sometimes be the main issue in the case. Indeed, sometimes the entire case will hinge on the answer to that question. And often the answer is anything but straightforward.
Most often, determining cause of death requires one or more medical experts. A forensic pathologist is a medical doctor whose specialty focuses on determining the cause of death. Forensic pathologists perform autopsies and postmortem examinations in cases where the cause of death is at issue. In addition to the autopsy itself, forensic pathologists will often collect and analyze tissue samples, obtain bodily fluid samples for toxicologic testing, and draw conclusions about the cause of death from the facts and circumstances leading up to and surrounding the death.
In some circumstances, determining cause of death is a simple and fairly uncomplicated matter. For example, in cases involving gunshot wounds, an autopsy may reveal a single devastating injury and no indication of other possible causes. But in many cases determining cause of death can be much more complicated.
Determining cause of death in the real world is very different from the way it is often portrayed on television where a dramatic single clue reveals everything the doctor needs to know. Contrary to popular belief, there are many potential causes of death that cannot be definitively determined from autopsy. Deaths caused by complications from alcohol or drug withdrawal, and deaths caused by asphyxiation (i.e., an inability to breathe) are perfect examples. In such circumstances, inspection of the body may reveal no trauma sufficient to account for the death. And toxicology reports and tissue samples are unlikely to provide answers. In other words, when death is caused by something other than disease or obvious trauma, physical inspection of the body is often not sufficient by itself to reveal the true cause of death.
One of the most important tools in the arsenal of the forensic pathologist is knowledge about the facts and circumstances leading up to and surrounding the death. In many cases, this knowledge can be far more important than any other single factor.
Unfortunately, forensic pathologists or medical examiners who are asked by the initial police investigators to determine cause of death sometimes lack knowledge about the true facts and circumstances surrounding the death. This often happens in police and jail death cases for the simple reason that police and jail personnel are not forthcoming about the true facts or themselves lack knowledge about what actually occurred. When the facts are lacking or falsely presented, the forensic pathologist or medical examiner can come up with an inaccurate answer to the cause of death, resort to a variety of “possible” causes, or be unable to determine the true cause. Sometimes, police and jail personnel will present misleading or false information which will lead to an entirely inaccurate opinion about the cause of death and/or result in imprecise or speculative conclusions about the cause.
Attorneys who focus on in-custody death cases are often able to gather significantly more facts than initial investigators. Simply put, initial investigators sometimes lack the motivation to uncover the truth, preferring instead to conduct cursory investigations for the purpose of exonerating police or jail personnel. Private attorneys, such as the wrongful death lawyers at Budge & Heipt, will sometimes uncover information that initial investigators failed to see or which they knew about but failed to explain to the medical examiner or forensic pathologist. When new information comes to light, the initial cause of death contained in the autopsy report can be revisited by a new expert or even by the original examiner. Sometimes this new information will cause the initial cause of death to be changed entirely or at least called into serious doubt.
The bottom line is that an “official” autopsy report may or may not reveal the real cause of death. If the death might be attributable to something that leaves no physical clue, or if there is reason to believe that the initial examiner lacked important information, a second opinion about cause of death might well be in order. Sometimes the second opinion, made after the facts are more fully revealed, will actually be more reliable than the first.
If you have lost a loved one as the result of possible police misconduct, or as the result of a death in jail or prison, please click here to contact our offices online or call 206.624.3060 now for a free consultation.