A Time Recorded in History

By: Darren Dake

How straight forward is a time of death decision? Determining time of death is both an art and a science and requires the C/ME (Coroner or Medical Examiner) to use several techniques and observations to make an accurate estimate. As a general rule, the sooner after death the body is examined, the more accurate this estimate will be. However, times of death are a legal and sometimes ethical decision that will have long lasting implications.

It used to be that a time of death was simply a time the coroner pronounced, arrived on the scene, or used witness statements to determine when a person passed. Many of those same techniques are used today, but with far greater consequences, if not accurate. Accurate time of death is important in both civil as well as criminal cases.

  • Criminal – Goes to opportunity and access, can prove or disprove an alibi.
  • Civil – Can assist in inheritance and probate issues.

But how can a time of death be accurate? In the majority of cases, it’s an educated guess in the best of circumstances. It’s the estimation that gets many coroners and investigators in the hot seat. To prevent as many issues as possible, let’s start by understanding there are three legal times of death that need to be documented whenever you can, and why each of these three are so important.

The three times of death an investigator will attempt to document are:

  • Physiologic
  • Legal
  • Estimated 

Let’s consider physiologic time of death first. The physiological time of death is the exact time a person’s vital functions cease to operate and the body dies. This is rarely known. Most deaths are not witnessed in a manner making it possible to determine the exact physiologic passing of an individual. And those that are, often times are witnessed by people who do not have the ‘authority’ to properly pronounce. Even in cases of cardiac occurrence in the hospital, the time given by the doctor as the time of death is the time he or she decided to stop any further attempts at resuscitation, not necessarily when the body stopped operating. However, the vital functions often cease many minutes before, making the exact time of death unknown.

The legal time of death is the method most C/ME investigators work with. The legal time of death is the hour, minute, and seconds recorded on a death certificate, as ruled by a Coroner or Medical Examiner or their investigators. This is the time that can get many investigators in hot water, if not recorded correctly. The method or reasoning used to determine this time must be well documented and arguably substantiated. Meaning, if the legal time of death is the time the investigator arrived on the scene, then you must document that detail in the summary report. If however, you as the investigator decide to use the cardiac strip ran by the EMS personnel on the scene showing no heart activity, then document the specifics fully, and explain your reasons for using that time. Make sure your report includes the identities of the EMS and paramedics responsible for your decision. 

In some instances, a police officer arrives on the scene prior to EMS and finds that an obvious death as occurred, either because of decomposition or level of gross destruction to the body. In this instance, a legal time of death could be the time the police officer first made the observation. But again, not only the time method chosen, as well as why this pronouncement was used, must be clearly documented. All of these circumstances are correct legal times of death and are perfectly fine to use, as long as you state your why in each case.

The third time of death used is the estimated time of death. This is no harder than it sounds. What is the time estimation of death? It can be bracketed by minutes, hours, days, months, or even years. This time is derived by use of investigative and scientific knowledge proving the last time the individual was known alive, and the time found to be dead.

For example, a person’s physiologic death can occur at 2200 hours Tuesday, while the body is not found until 1400 hours on Wednesday. However, the last verified time the victim was known alive occurred at 1700 hours on Monday. So, this provides a time frame between 1700 hours on Monday until the body was found on 1400 hours Wednesday.

In some circumstances, a more accurate time frame can be developed through scientific knowledge such as lividity, rigor mortis, etc. But these are highly subjective, can have many variables, and may decrease your time by a few hours. For example, use of Entomology evidence at the scene and Pathology evidence found at autopsy, can also aid in the time frame determination. Again, all details should be clearly documented with the ability to be defended.

No matter what the chosen method, the best practice used to determine time of death is always a thorough and complete investigation of the scene and the person’s last known activities. From a criminal perspective, a time of death, legal and estimated, will be used to prove or disprove an alibi or help strengthen witness testimony or suspect access. In civil cases, insurance issues can arise over policy limits and payout amounts reliant on time of death. Even in a natural death situation, implications can arise over questions of proper care or staffing limits, such as, whether medications were given at proper times, or not, which could have led to the death.

Time of death determination is in fact both art and science—art being the investigative function. But as you can see, much more is required than just a time recording in history. Verifiable documentation of your method backs up the science, leading to better outcomes for any case.