Establishing time of death is often more complicated than they make it seem on television. The following information is based on California laws regarding death certificate criteria.
Determining TOD in an unwitnessed death is almost impossible to do. There are times when someone dies alone or “unwitnessed” and there is something that can help us narrow down the approximate time the person died, such as a gunshot being heard, or the dying person being on the phone with someone when they stop breathing, or an event that caused an immediately fatal injury such as a traffic accident, explosion, a lightning strike and other similar events. For example, there was a case handled by my office in which someone was attempting to steal copper wiring from a metal control box. When they attempted to cut the wire, they were electrocuted and actually caught fire. Although the event was not witnessed, there was a loss of power to a small area and the time of the power loss was recorded by the company as well as the people who lost power. In that instance we can have a pretty good idea what time death occurred because it would have been instantaneous due to the amount of electricity. There have also been many time a traffic accident is heard, and when first responders arrive one or more of the victims are already deceased and their injury is one that would be immediately fatal such as extreme crushing injuries to the head and chest. One issue with time of death is the person has to be officially pronounced dead by someone qualified to do so. This is usually a first responder such as a paramedic, or law enforcement official. In hospital deaths, it is usually a physician, or a nurse at the direction of a physician. In many cases, the time of death (TOD) is the pronouncement time as recorded by the physician or first responder.
However, in unwitnessed cases, we often use the term FOUND TIME instead of TIME OF DEATH. The reason for this is we do not know the actual time of death. We take the time the first responder arrived and confirmed the person was deceased. We then determine when the decedent was last known to be alive. If it was not on the same day they were found, we will list a FOUND DATE, then list the pronouncement time listed in the TOD space. This basically certifies we cannot establish the exact time of death but only when the person was found. In our investigative report we will elaborate more about the last time known alive, and how long the physical findings indicate the person was probably deceased. This is where temperatures, exposure, stages of rigor mortis and decomposition come into play. I will discuss those topics in a later post….
A second area on the death certificate which is important in NON-NATURAL deaths, is the INJURY section. In some cases, the injury date and time is the same or very near the time of death, and in others it can be years apart. In an unwitnessed death this entry is often marked UNKNOWN. If a gunshot, traffic accident or other factor can provide the injury time we will use it.