How Autopsies Work

Two Types of Autopsies

The forensic autopsy or medical-legal autopsy is the kind you most often see on TV and in movies. "The forensic autopsy spends almost as much time on the external surfaces of the body as it does on the internal surfaces, 'cause that's where evidence is," former Fulton County Deputy Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Eric Kiesel says.

According to Kiesel, forensic autopsies try to find answers to the cause of death as part of an overall police investigation. On TV shows such "NCIS" or "Law & Order: Special Victims Unit," medical examiners seem to be a major component in the investigation and can use DNA evidence for just about everything. In reality, Kiesel explains, "the autopsy's going to tell you why they died, what killed them — but it won't necessarily tell you why they did it. So, all of the answers aren't going to be there."


The clinical autopsy, in comparison is usually performed in hospitals by a pathologist or the attending physician to determine a cause of death for research and study purposes. "They're really interested in the disease processes that are going on, and they're interested ... in making that clinical-pathological correlation," Kiesel says. "A person came in with these symptoms, here's the treatment they got and here are my findings. They try to put the whole package together to help inform people of what happened or may have happened."

In the eyes of the law, all deaths fall into one of five categories of causes. In the next section, we'll look at the five manners of death.