While embalming a man who died in a single-vehicle crash, a funeral director in Texas found a bullet jacket in his
The medical examiner, who said he had noted extensive injuries but hadn't recognized gunshot wounds or seen the need
for an autopsy, did one and found the man had been shot not once but twice.
Police investigators said the victim was partially ejected when his truck veered across the road, hit a curb and rolled
over. Nothing gave them reason to suspect he had been shot.
As a result of this case, the medical examiner's office has changed its policy. Victims of unwitnessed traffic crashes
henceforth will be X-rayed.
Twice in my career, I have discovered unsuspected gunshot wounds while autopsying alleged victims of traffic accidents.
The Texas case makes it clear that my experience is not unique, and it supports my belief that autopsies should be done
on all victims of violence, in part because an external examination of a bloody, mutilated body cannot reliably
recognize an unsuspected murder.
X-rays are better than nothing, but if a bullet goes all the way through, no X-ray would detect it.
Some question the necessity of autopsies in traffic fatalities. Many coroners and some medical examiners do not require
them, and Utah statute specifically excludes such cases from the medical examiner's jurisdiction.
Are autopsies on traffic victims worth the cost?
I keep no comprehensive record of the thousands of autopsies I have done, but I can reasonably estimate that since I
began doing forensic autopsies in 1983, I have autopsied approximately 800 traffic victims.
If the average cost to society of doing a medicolegal autopsy is $1,000, each of the two unsuspected murders I've
identified cost taxpayers $400,000 (disregarding for the sake of argument any other benefit derived).
That's a lot of money, but if some nut is taking pot shots at passing vehicles, it's worth a lot to recognize the fact
before others are killed.
The unlikely event of recognizing an occult murder isn't the only reason to autopsy victims of traffic accidents.
Sometimes, external injuries are slight while internal injuries are massive; sometimes the reverse. An external
examination usually will not tell me if the victim suffered. Families almost always ask, and pain and suffering
influences litigation and court-ordered compensation.
Toxicology is vital in the investigation of deaths by violence, and to be sure the result is credible, I want to see
where the tip of my needle is before I draw a sample.
After massive injury, organs may be ruptured or displaced, contaminating samples obtained blindly. Head injuries cause
redistribution of blood away from the heart and large vessels, making it hard to obtain an adequate specimen by
Not infrequently, stories change, new evidence emerges or unanticipated questions arise - questions that can't be
answered without an autopsy.
The coroner decides autopsy policy, and as my mentor in forensic pathology used to say, I'd rather explain why I did
something than why I didn't.
Dr. Carol J. Huser,
a forensic pathologist, has served as La Plata County coroner
since January 2003.