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WIREs Forensic Sci

An introduction to postmortem interval estimation in medicolegal death investigations

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Abstract Throughout the history of forensic medicine, the postmortem interval has been one of the most commonly and thoroughly investigated problems. The importance of an accurate PMI in the context of a medicolegal death investigation cannot be understated due to its utility and application toward investigative determinations including inclusion or exclusion of suspects, determination of time of assault versus time of death, and preliminary victim identification. However, despite its importance, the question of postmortem interval estimation is often answered with a low degree of accuracy as compared to the rates of certainty within other forensic disciplines. While there are various methods that may be utilized for answering the time of death question including both scientific and investigative techniques, the variables that affect the application of these methods to death investigations are abundant. As a result, there are numerous limitations associated with time of death determination in a medicolegal death investigation and the estimation of the postmortem interval must be done with caution and deference to the many variables that affect its accuracy. This article is categorized under: Forensic Anthropology > Time Since Death Estimation Forensic Medicine > Death Scene Investigation Crime Scene Investigation > Education and Formation
An excerpt from “The Washing Away of Wrongs” wherein investigator Sung Tz'u describes and labels the human skeleton for use in death investigations. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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Blowflies are some of the most common insects associated with decomposition cases, the development of which can be used to aid in postmortem interval estimation. Photo courtesy of Dr J.H. Byrd
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An example of one of Henssge's nomograms used to predict postmortem interval based on the relationship between temperature variables. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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A pig carcass exemplifying two of the common artifacts of decomposition that can be used to estimate time since death in the earlier stages of decomposition—lividity and rigor mortis. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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Forensic Science in Action/Crime Scene Investigation > Education and Formation
Forensic Medicine > Death Scene Investigation
Forensic Anthropology > Time Since Death Estimation

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