Victim Recovery


The way in which a body is retrieved from a crime scene, preserved and transported can greatly affect the appearance and subsequent evaluation of any evidence or injury. Therefore, the officer in charge of the crime scene, the forensic pathologist and the body transporter must liaise to ensure the body is handled and transported in such a way that additional injuries or artifacts are not produced nor evidence lost. In addition, any evidence noted on the body at the scene should remain in its original position; for example, a ligature in a case of a suicide by hanging.
The position of this evidence should be protected while the body is in transit to the mortuary. Furthermore, any precautions taken to prevent this evidence being destroyed should be documented. For example, when paper bags are placed over the hands to preserve gunshot residues, the pathologist is informed of this before the autopsy examination to ensure there is no confusion over when the paper bags were placed on the hands – before or after death.
To ensure adequate transportation, all personnel involved with the case should be trained in procedures dealing with continuity of evidence and protocols for handling suspicious deaths. In such cases a police officer should accompany the deceased to the mortuary and oversee the transfer of the body. This is crucial to protect the family, police and mortuary staff from discrepancy when handling not only evidence but also property. The way in which clothing and property is handled can become a contentious issue for the family. Personnel recovering and transporting bodies need to be aware of protocols to maintain the continuity of the property and evidence. In addition, all personnel must wear the appropriate safety attire and be trained in procedures to minimize infectious risks. Body handling also carries an element of risk with regards to physical strain. Staff need training in special lifting techniques.
This article outlines the techniques necessary for preserving the body and associated evidence during transport, including specific considerations for different types of case.

Preservation of the Body Prior to Removal

In many cases, the clothing, body and hands of the deceased should be protected from possible contamination during transportation. Often a clean plastic body pouch or plastic sheet is enough to ensure evidence is not lost. Any additional measures taken to assist with the preservation of evidence should be clearly noted, and only performed in the presence of the pathologist or homicide detective. Once the police, pathologist and crime scene examiners have completed their examination, the deceased is prepared for transportation. Often minimal preparations are needed. If the body is prostrate and no outward injuries are observed, it can be carefully lifted into a bag and on to a stretcher. In the past, funeral directors and hospital staff have ‘packed and prepared’ the body. This included laying it in the anatomical position with the hands and feet tied and cotton wool placed in all orifices. These procedures should not be performed in forensic cases as they may create postmortem artifacts or injury, which may be difficult to interpret.

Incinerated cases

Severely burnt or incinerated bones are often very brittle and fragile. In these cases the identification of the deceased person can be difficult. Most often ante-mortem dental records will be used for comparison with the dentition of the deceased person. In many instances the mandible is exposed during a fire and is severely burnt. The teeth may be lost during transportation to the mortuary. To prevent this, the head is photographed in situ and then wrapped in cotton wool and bubble wrap, and is supported by a plastic bag or container. Thus, if the teeth are dislodged they remain contained within the bag. In addition, after removal of the body, the ash and debris in the region below the deceased and the immediate vicinity are carefully searched and sifted to screen for teeth, small bones or other matter important to the case. The debris may be bagged and labeled according to the section of body immediately above it, and sifted at the mortuary. It is important that anything found at the scene is bagged separately and clearly labeled: for example, ‘tooth found in the vicinity of body x ‘. In cases where a number of bodies are found close together it should not be assumed that separate parts belong to any particular body until further examination has been carried out.


In many cases of suicide the items contributing to the death are found on or near the body. It is important that anything attached to the body remains attached and its position preserved as much as possible. This is to ensure that the pathologist can examine the device, e.g. wires or electrical equipment, in relation to the position of the device and any injury it may have caused. This can help to rule out the involvement of any other person in the death. In addition, in more obscure cases, if the evidence, e.g. a plastic bag over the head, is removed prior to the pathologist’s examination the mode of suicide is often unclear. In the event of a hanging suicide, where the deceased is suspended, the ligature should remain intact and in situ. The rope should be cut away from the deceased, leaving the knot intact. If resuscitation has taken place and the ligature has been removed, the section of the ligature originally around the neck of the deceased should be reconstructed, the ends tied together with string, then bagged, labeled and transported with the body. When there is evidence with legal requirements for transport, such as firearms, drugs or volatiles, the chain of custody should be documented. The police or ballistics expert experienced in safe handling procedures usually transports firearms and other dangerous weapons.

Suspicious deaths

Preservation of evidence is most important for homicide or suspicious death. Methods vary with the circumstances. The body should only be touched or moved in consultation with the homicide squad and/ or forensic pathologist. Prior to removal, the body should be carefully placed on a sheet of plastic and then into a sealed body bag to insure no fibers or trace evidence is lost. In the majority of these cases it is important that the clothing and evidence remains absolutely undisturbed until examination by the forensic pathologist. For example, in cases of sexual assault the disarray of clothing provides the pathologist with an indication of such an assault, and would highlight the possibility of injury in certain areas. In addition, the clothing folds may contain evidence such as semen, hairs or fibers that would otherwise be disturbed in removal of the clothing or transport of the body. However, in certain circumstances it may be advantageous to remove clothing or evidence at the scene; for example, to preserve blood spatter evidence. The removal of clothing, property or evidence should only occur after consultation with the forensic pathologist. In such cases chain of custody is documented to maintain continuity of evidence.

Gunshot cases

When a shot is fired, gunshot residues are ejected from the weapon on to the hands and clothing of the person firing the weapon. By measuring the quantity of residues on the persons present at the scene of death it is possible to exclude some suspects and approximate the position of any other people present at the time of the event. To preserve the gunshot residues on the deceased person during transit, paper bags are placed over the hands. It is essential that paper bags be used rather than plastic as the hands may sweat in the plastic, which would alter the presence of the residues. After the removal of the deceased on to a stretcher, the immediate vicinity is searched carefully for the projectile. The body transporter must be aware of this as the projectile may be on the surface of the skin or in the clothing and it may be disturbed when the body is moved.

Decomposed cases

The decomposing body presents a difficult situation in terms of removal and transport. The body is very fragile, and often beginning to break apart. Moving a severely decomposed body can complicate this further and result in the removal of skin and/or the detachment of limbs. To overcome this, rather than lifting the body on to plastic it should be rolled on to its side, and the plastic tucked underneath. The body can then be lifted using the plastic to hold the remains intact. Dealing with a decomposed body is unpleasant, and there are a number of associated risks. Flies and maggots are often present, as are spiders and other insects. Care should be taken to avoid being bitten or stung; however, fly spray or deodorizer should not be used on the body as it may interfere with toxicology results. Fluid-filled blisters, called bolus, may rupture and splash body transporters, and appropriate safety attire should be worn.

Skeletal remains

Many forensic anthropology text topics describe in detail the methods involved in recovering skeletal remains. The process is slow and meticulous as the soil layers and vegetation are removed layer by layer without disturbing the skeleton. When the body is uncovered, soft brushes are used to scrape away the remaining soil around the bones, and each is examined and removed by an anthropologist. The bones are packed in paper bags, either grouped or separately depending on the case. In some circumstances the skull may need to be wrapped similarly to the procedure used with incinerated remains, to preserve the teeth. Alternatively, the teeth may be glued in place before removal of the skull. In circumstances where some tissue is still attached to the bones, it may be possible to slide a large board underneath the deceased and lift the remains with the board, keeping it intact for transportation. As with incinerated bodies, the soil around the deceased should be bagged, labeled and sifted later to search for teeth, small bones and other evidence.

Diving fatalities

The recovery of diving fatalities is one of the more difficult situations in body removal. The equipment and its settings may provide vital clues as to the cause of death; thus it should all remain intact and should accompany the deceased in situ. This makes for a bulky and awkward body transfer. If an expert is present, the equipment should be checked at the scene to ensure valves are turned off and settings are not accidentally altered during transit. It is crucial that the body be transported to the mortuary as quickly as possible. In diving fatalities, radiography for air embolism needs to be performed on the deceased within 4h, otherwise the air becomes reabsorbed into the blood and the evidence of air embolism lost.

Infectious cases

Universal precautions should be used with every body removal, regardless of its known infectious state. Gloves and care with sharps should be exercised, and all bodies treated as potentially infectious. If a risk is noted, extra care should be taken; double gloves may be used and care taken to avoid contact with body fluids. To prevent splashes, a towel or absorbent material can be placed over any open wounds or over the face of the deceased person. In the elderly, or instances where there is a risk for tuberculosis, a towel should be placed over the face to prevent the escape of sputum or other fluids. In high classifications of infection, respirators should be worn when handling the body. The deceased is wrapped in plastic, sealed in a body pouch and clearly labeled as ‘high risk of infection’.

Chemical contaminations

Before a chemically contaminated body is recovered and transported, the chemical is identified and assessed for the degree of hazard. This is to insure the appropriate precautions are taken to maintain a safe work environment for scene workers, body transporters and mortuary staff. In many instances, once the body is removed from the scene the level of contamination is low. If the chemical cannot be identified it should be treated as highly toxic and maximum protection worn by workers. In extreme cases the body is decontaminated before removal. Generally, the fire brigade controls the scene. Only personnel trained in decontamination procedures should enter the scene.
It is recommended that the body be photographed in situ, then the clothing and property bagged and labeled, with scene workers wearing self-contained breathing apparatus. The deceased is then repeatedly hosed. In any case where there is suspicion of chemical contamination, a safety officer should be assigned to monitor continually the level of toxic fumes and insure the safety of the staff is adequate. The type of respirator necessary for transportation to the mortuary depends on the chemical. The fire brigade or the scene controller can be consulted. Each situation needs to be separately and fully assessed.

Body Lifting and Moving

The different methods of moving a body have been described above. The aim is to prevent any further injury to the deceased person and also to the personnel moving the body. It is recommended that, ideally, four people should be involved in moving a body of average size/weight from the scene to a body bag and then on to a stretcher. This allows for each person to hold a limb of the deceased or a corner of the body bag. Standard lifting techniques should be used; that is, bending the knees and keep the back straight.
With obese bodies it may be easier to roll the deceased one way, placing a the body bag beneath, and then rolling the body the other way, pulling the body bag across. This technique can also be used for cases in which decomposition has occurred. It is important that the body is not dragged, as this will cause additional injuries.

Body bags

The type of body bag will depend on the budget of the organization. Deluxe body bags can cost anything up to 10 times the standard price. In large organizations this is just not practicable; however, there is still a minimum set of requirements all body bags should possess. These include:
• tough waterproof material;
• strong zips with covers to prevent leakage;
• generous size to allow for bodies with rigor mortis and extensive decomposition;
• handles.

Property and clothing

The handling of property and clothing is an area where emergency personnel and mortuary staff are often criticized. It is therefore vital that all property and clothing is dealt with according to strict protocols.
In routine cases it is preferred that all clothing and property is left at the home. In such instances the clothing is removed and clearly recorded. Property is also clearly recorded on a property sheet. Generic terms should be used at all times; for example, a gold ring with diamonds should be described as a ‘gold colored’ ring with clear stones. It is also best that the removal of clothing and property is done in the presence of a police officer and the body transporter. Both parties will then sign the property sheet.
If the clothing and property cannot be removed at the scene, it will be removed in the mortuary. Again two independent persons such as a pathologist and a police officer should witness the removal and sign the property sheets.
It should always be assumed the family would like the clothing and property returned, regardless of the state. On return, whether via the funeral director or to the family directly, details should be recorded on the property sheet and cosigned by the two parties.

Disaster Victim Identification

In the event of a mass disaster, body recovery can be crucial in assisting the final identification of the deceased person and reconstruction of the events just before the incident. The international disaster victim identification (DVI)forms published by Interpol are well recognized as the preferred method for documentation of body recovery and identification in the event of a disaster. The DVI protocol consists of five phases:
• Phase 1: The scene
• Phase 2: The mortuary
• Phase 3: Antemortem retrieval
• Phase 4: Reconciliation
• Phase 5: Debriefing.

Phase 1

Once the injured have been removed from the scene, the scene should be secured. DVI teams are formed. These consist of a crime scene examiner, a photographer and a recorder. A pathologist and a forensic odontologist support each team.
The location of each body or specimen is recorded such that it is related to a known reference point, usually a grid reference. A unique DVI number is given to each body or body part. The Interpol DVI form B is completed and the body or body part is moved to a body holding area. Property not attached to a body is also recorded with reference to its location and handed to a property officer.
During phase 1 the pathologist certifies death and assists with the identification of body parts. An odon-tologist may also be required

Phase 2

The body is transported to the mortuary in a body bag. Once at the mortuary, the body is radiographed and autopsied. The autopsy involves the assistance of DVI autopsy teams. These consist of a recorder, an examiner and a photographer.
With the assistance of the pathologists the DVI teams record and photograph all the clothing and property. Once the naked body has been photographed, they also record identifying features such as hair color, eye color, scars and tattoos. The autopsy is performed and the recorder again documents any items that may be utilized during the identification, such as the presence of an appendix. A forensic odontologist examines the teeth; trained fingerprint personnel take fingerprints. During the autopsy examination a sample of blood may be retained for DNA analysis These details are all recorded on DVI Interpol forms C1-G.

Phase 3

Trained police personnel interview family members of missing persons (presumed to have died in the mass disaster)to gather identifying features of that person. This includes the color and type of clothes that the person may have worn, and other identifying features such as hair color, eye color, scars and tattoos. They are also responsible for gathering the dental records.

Phase 4

All antemortem forms and postmortem forms are compared during the reconciliation phase. This is achieved systematically using a reconciliation chart and grouping each set into male and female, black and white, and ages 0-15, 15-75, 75 years plus. If in doubt, the deceased is placed in the 15-75 group. The final identification of each case is presented to the coroner for the ultimate decision.

Phase 5

It is essential for all staff involved in the body recovery of a mass disaster to undergo debriefing. This could involve a hot debriefing immediately after the event and at the end of each working day, and could also involve a later debriefing, which also examines the procedures used and ways of improving these procedures.

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