PSYCHOLOGICAL AUTOPSY

It is terribly traumatic to lose a loved one, friend, colleague or even an acquaintance to homicide, suicide or an accidental death, or to a natural death. It is far worse for someone to die when the actual cause of death is in question. In many cases it is very difficult to determine whether someone was murdered, killed themselves, died from an accident or just passed away from natural causes. In legal terms the process to investigate and determine the actual cause of death for someone is called an Equivocal Death Analysis. There is no scientific term of the same name but the Psychological Autopsy (PA) has been used when mental health professionals, usually forensic psychologists or psychiatrists use a well defined process to try to figure out the actual cause of death. The term was coined in the 1960s and an initial process was developed at that time. In 1987, I published an important article that built on the process of the PA. In 2014 I began a revision of my article including new advances in the study of causes of death. I anticipate my article will be published in 2015. Having worked many cases I truly understand the agony that family members and others close to the deceased go through when they have legitimate questions regarding what exactly happened to their loved ones. In more than a few cases I have found coroners are a bit quick to label a death as a suicide as opposed to launching into a complex process that delays matters when, in fact, the person may have been murdered.

In the 1990s and later I had the good fortune to work at the Major Crimes section of the California Department of Justice with a talented police officer, now a Lt., Mike Prodan, doing PAs. I learned that relying on psychological science had great limitations and employing good police work with such things as ballistics, blood splatter, investigative techniques, DNA, toxicology data and many other modern techniques led to a greater chance of actually solving the mystery. The process is intense and detailed using computer models, psychological methods such as deducing a mental status examination on the deceased. There is an enormous amount of data collected and then a team sifts through it and comes to probabilities of the most likely cause of death. It is a process that I am committed to developing and working on in order to provide peace to families left with troubling questions about what happened to their loved ones.

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