How Long Does a Death Investigation Take?

Like many people, you’ve watched more than a few television programs and films that involve homicide or death investigations. The alarming reality is that a considerable segment of the population will have some sort of direct connection with a death investigation involving the circumstances of a friend or family member’s passing. You may have a good many questions about a death investigation. These understandably may include how long does a death investigation take.

Entities That Investigate Deaths

In California, as is the case across the United States, three different types of agencies can be involved in death investigations. These are:

Law enforcement agencies can be involved in a death investigation to ascertain if there exists any criminality in the death of a person and who is responsible for it. Health agencies can be involved in the investigation of death to determine if some sort of health, illness, or disease issue is at play that might impact the general population. Finally, a coroner or medical examiner can become involved in a death investigation to determine the cause and manner of death.

Cause of death is the underlying reason an individual died. Manner of death is how the cause of death actually occurred. For example, if a person died because of a gunshot wound, a confirmation by the coroner may need to be made that the death was the result of an accident, suicide, or homicide. The gunshot wound is the cause of death. Ascertaining whether the death occurred by accident, suicide or homicide is finding the manner of death.

Types of Deaths That May Necessitate Longer Investigations

There are certain types of deaths that are more likely than others to extend the time period associated with an investigation. These are:

General Timeframes Associated With Death Investigations

There are different timeframes at play when it comes to death investigations by this trio of agencies.

Law Enforcement Agencies

When a law enforcement agency is involved in the investigation of a death, there is no timeframe within which it must be completed. Unlike most crimes in the United States, there is no statute of limitations in the case of a homicide. In other words, there is not a deadline by which homicide charges must be filed in court.

Health Agencies

Similarly, a health agency technically has no deadline by which it must complete a death investigation. Having said that, because a health agency typically is striving to ascertain whether or not a person died from something that might present a threat to the public at large, a health agency will attempt to complete a death investigation with all deliberate speed.

Coroners or Medical Examiners

Coroners or medical examiners in California maintain standards of practice or procedure that are derived from state law when it comes to establishing timelines associated with their death investigations. As a result, the outside parameter for a death investigation is 90 days. This most definitely doesn’t mean that a typical death investigation will take this long.

Looking at the coroners’ offices in Southern California as examples of standard practice, a medical examiner strives to have an autopsy completed within 48 hours of reception of the remains of a deceased individual. Because of the number of autopsies that oftentimes must be performed by a county coroner, particularly in a place like Los Angeles County, a bit more time may be needed to perform and complete an autopsy.

The autopsy itself doesn’t bring a death investigation to an end. Rather, additional testing in a laboratory setting very well may be required. One need only look at the untimely deaths of celebrities like Michael Jackson or Whiney Houston to appreciate the length of time that might pass from death to receipt of laboratory results to closing of a death investigation. Six to eight weeks may pass before lab results are available – or even more time.

A California coroner will release a death certificate directly after the conclusion of an autopsy to permit a family or other loved ones the lawful ability to proceed with a funeral or memorial service and the final disposition of a deceased individual’s remains. The release of the remains to next of kin nearly always occurs at this juncture.

There is one exception to the release of remains to next of kin in this manner. Law enforcement or a district attorney may place a hold on the release of the remains for a bit longer period of time due to certain needs associated with an ongoing criminal investigation into the death at issue.

When a coroner issues a death certificate after an autopsy but before lab results have been returned to the medical examiner, the case of death on the document will be listed as pending. When lab results are returned, the coroner will list the cause of death on the certificate. In some rare cases, a cause of death is not determined even after lab testing. Thus, the death certificate will be amended to read “unknown” or “undetermined,” depending upon the lexicon of a particular coroner.

Cold Case Investigations

Unfortunately, a notable percentage of homicides end up pended in cold case files. This means that despite an initial investigation by law enforcement and the coroner, a determination of homicide might be made but the perpetrator is not identified or not found. In such cases, all aspects of the death investigation technically remain open.

There is a decent chance that the coroner may be called upon at a later date to assist in additional forensics testing or even a second autopsy. In some cases, this will necessitate the exhumation of the remains of a deceased individual.

In the final analysis, with all of the agencies mentioned previously, a sincere effort is made to conclude a death investigation with all deliberate speed, within the shortest time period possible. Nonetheless, in cases involving homicides, months or even years may pass before a truly final conclusion is had in regard to a death investigation.