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Research Focus: Virtual Autopsies--No Scalpel Required

NCJ Number
Date Published
January 2006
2 pages

This article discusses the cutting edge of forensic science technology for virtual autopsies.


Virtual autopsies are a new development in the field of forensic death investigation using computerized reconstructions of the deceased to determine cause and time of death. Noninvasive postmortem magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), computed tomography (CT), and photogrammetric scans taken of the body are assimilated by a computer program into two or three-dimensional digital images. Virtual autopsies produce clear graphics of organs and injuries; detect bullet paths, pockets of liquid, hidden fractures, and gasses that are hard to observe with the naked eye; and can even identify specific toolmarks left in bone. The images are graphic enough to engage and educate jurors but not gruesome enough to risk exclusion in a court of law. The noninvasive nature of the technique protects examiners from toxic agents sealed within the body, and provides assurance for autopsies that might otherwise have been prevented because of personal or religious beliefs. This technique is being developed and studied at the University of Bern, Institute of Forensic Medicine in Switzerland under the name Virtopsy. Still considered experimental, researchers must validate the accuracy and diagnostic value of the digital images through a subsequent, traditional autopsy. Drawbacks include: the need for expensive equipment and specially trained x-ray technicians, an examination process which is not entirely automated, and an inability to diagnose natural deaths caused by heart failure, infection, or poisoning. The use of a digital three-dimensional model to supplement or replace the standard autopsy report has not been addressed by the American legal system which may have to toil to set standards of admissibility and authentication for virtual autopsy evidence.

Date Published: January 1, 2006