Roles in an Investigation: Psychological Autopsy


by Tabetha Cooper

As a police psychologist, I am part of an investigation into the homicide of a high profile community member, the mayor.  The information that has been presented from the department is that the victim was found with a single gunshot wound to the head.  He was last seen with another notable figure (identity unknown) at a nearby restaurant.  It has been learned that before becoming the mayor, the deceased was the chief of the department that I am currently working in and was very close to many administrators and officers.
Psychologists usually play many roles within a law enforcement agency.  They often perform evaluations on new officers or fit-for-duty evaluations on established officers. They may act as consultants or even help to establish policies within the department.  This essay is going to explore the roles that a psychologist plays during an investigation; specifically, a murder investigation.  Psychological autopsies are an area of interest for psychologists.  This essay is going to explore what the purpose of a psychological autopsy is, how to conduct one, and what to include in the written report following a psychological autopsy.  An exploration of various psychological issues that friends and family members deal with preceding a murder will be conducted along with how the written report can affect those issues.
Roles in an Investigation
During an investigation a psychologist can participate in the debriefing process, help interview witnesses, or conduct the psychological autopsy.  For instance, a police officer may experience several situations that could potentially lead to psychological issues ranging from post traumatic stress disorder to an inability to cope with their jobs.  They may have to shoot someone in the line of duty or witness the death of child.  The possibility of traumatic situations that a police officer can become involved with is endless.  This is when the psychologist needs to conduct a debriefing, to aid the officers in dealing with these life altering situations. (Kurke & Scrivner, 2007).
Sometimes it is beneficial for a psychologist to assist in conducting interviews.  Whether they are actively participating in the interview or just offering advice to the officers, their help and expertise can be advantageous for the officers.  The witness of a crime has likely just gone through a traumatic event.  They may not be able to remember facts off the top of their head or may refuse to talk for fear of retaliation from the perpetrator.  Coming forward and giving an accurate timeline of events can be difficult and a psychologist can offer ways to ease the witness so that they are more willing to participate.  They also have the ability to make people more comfortable, helping them to clear their mind and focus during an interview. (Kurke & Scrivner, 2007).
            A psychological autopsy should always be conducted by a psychologist or other mental health professional, especially in the case of a highly publicized murder (Loya & Selkin, 1979).  The psychologist can bring a lot of experience to the psychological autopsy, which aids in making sure that details are interpreted correctly.  This is important since the victim is not there to tell the story on their own.  A psychological autopsy can contribute much to an investigation, especially in cases of murder or suicide (Kurke & Scrivner, 2007).  Not all murder cases warrant a psychological profile, although one should always be conducted if a homicide case is considered high profile.
Psychological Autopsy: Purpose
A psychological autopsy is a way to determine if a death was a suicide, accident, or homicide by looking at the various psychological aspects of the death itself (Kurke & Scrivner, 1995, p. 337, para. 2).  It is a process designed to evaluate different psychological aspects of a deceased person including behavior, thoughts, feelings, and relationships (Ebert, 1987, p. 52. para. 1).  The intent of the psychological autopsy is to study the circumstances surrounding the death in conjunction with many other details of the person’s life.  The goal is to find out why and how a person died.  The results of a psychological autopsy can be beneficial to insurance companies and to the successful prosecution of a homicide case (Kurke & Scrivner, 1995; Ebert, 1997).
There are four main purposes for conducting a psychological autopsy.  The first is to determine the mode of death.  Mode of death differs from the mean of death.  The mean of death is how someone died (i.e. gunshot wound, heart failure, asphyxiation, etc.).  The mode of death is the determination of whether the death occurred from natural causes, an accident, a suicide, or a homicide. The next purpose is to discover why the death happened at a particular time and date (i.e., was the person in the wrong place at the wrong time, was this date an anniversary of a loved one’s death, was being in this area at this time a part of the deceased regular routine, etc.).  Another purpose is to decide the motivation for the death.  In this context, motivation for death includes intentional (on purpose), sub-intentional (an act was meant to harm but not kill), and unintentional (an accident).  The last purpose for a psychological autopsy is for the therapeutic value it can bring to the survivors of the deceased.  The psychological autopsy can offer answers that may help the family to understand what happened and move on, especially in the case of a homicide. (Ebert, 1987, p. 53, para. 1-5).
Conducting a Psychological Autopsy
When conducting a psychological autopsy, a psychologist should always start with information from the crime scene.  This information can be collected in the police report.  Within the police reports the psychologist should also look for information such as relationships, support systems, and occupation. After this it is wise to review all other records available such as witness interviews.  (Kurke & Scrivner, 2007).  This information gives the psychologist a list of people they should interview in the later stages of the psychological autopsy.  A crime scene analysis should be conducted with the photos and evidence collected at the crime scene.  A thorough reconstruction of the crime scene can be very useful in a psychological autopsy.  The next step would be to review the physical autopsy and toxicology reports.  This could offer insight into the deceased’s state of mind at the time of death. (Kurke & Scrivner, 2007).
After all the information that can be located within the agency has been reviewed, the psychologist should start gathering their own documents to review.  The psychologist should seek out various records that have been created throughout the victim’s life.  These documents include but are not limited to medical, school, work, and if applicable military records (Kurke & Scrivner, 2007; Ebert, 1987).  This information will allow the psychologist to begin gaining insight into how the person behaved throughout his or her life.  These records will let the psychologist know things such as what the medical history of the immediate family was, an educational history, an employment history, discharge status of the deceased, and if he or she suffered from post traumatic stress disorder when leaving the military (Ebert, 1987).  Durand and Barlow (2007) define post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as an “enduring, distressing emotional disorder that follows exposure to a severe helplessness- or fear-inducing threat.”  This information is especially helpful in cases of suicide.
 The next step in the process of conducting a psychological autopsy is to search the victim’s residence.  The psychologist should be sure to look through the victim’s library, office, and/or closet.  The psychologist should be looking for things such as personal writings, preferred reading material, and what kind of clothing is kept in the closet (Kurke & Scrivner, 2007; Ebert, 1987).  This information can give the psychologist a sense of who the person was prior to his or her death before talking with family and friends. 
At this point, the psychologist should be ready to begin conducting interviews.  He or she should begin with re-interviewing the witnesses, if they are available.  The witness interviews should focus on what the person observed during the event and anything they may have seen that would relate to the event (Kurke & Scrivner, 2007).  This could cross reference what was told to the police and potentially gain additional information that was not remembered at the time of the original interview.  Next, the psychologist should try to contact the deceased’s family, friends, co-workers (Kurke & Scrivner, 2007; Ebert, 1987), life partner, teachers, doctors, and mental health professionals, if possible (Ebert, 1987).  When setting up these interviews, it is important for the psychologist to remember that these people are grieving and thart they need to be handled with sensitivity.  The psychologist should explain, when making the appointment, the purpose of the psychological autopsy.  During each interview, the psychologist should find out details of the relationship with the deceased: how often the person seen and/or talked to the deceased, how long they had known each other, and what the quality of the relationship was (Kurke & Scrivner, 2007).  The psychologist should attempt to find out if there were any problems in the marriage such as infidelity or constant fighting, drug/alcohol habits, recent stressors, the usual personality and mood of the victim, if there had been any change in normal behaviors, if the person acted as if they knew they were going to die, and if the person was familiar with weapons (Kurke & Scrivner, 2007; Ebert, 1987).
After collecting all the personal information available, the psychologist should focus on trying to reconstruct the deceased’s last twenty four hours of life (Ebert, 1987).  Hopefully this will shed light on the events that led to the person’s death, as well as shining some light on who could have been responsible for the death.  After all the information has been reviewed and the last twenty-four hours have been reconstructed, the psychologist should be able to come to a conclusion with the psychological autopsy and be able to write their report.
Psychological Autopsy: Written Report
After the psychological autopsy, the psychologist should write a written report and offer it to the police agency handling the case.  The report should include an introduction and any identifying information, should present the problem, the past history, victimology, and the psychologist’s opinions (Kurke & Scrivner, 2007).  The introduction should state who requested the psychological autopsy, the procedure used to conduct the psychological autopsy, what records were reviewed, and who was interviewed.  The identifying information section should include any information known about the deceased (name, age, date of birth, address, relationship status, religion, occupation, and anything else could aid in the identification of the deceased).   The problem presentation section should include all information that involves the death.  This is where the psychologist would note what was learned about the crime scene, details about the investigation, known events prior to death, and a concise timeline leading to the time of death.  The past history section should include everything the psychologist unearthed about the deceased’s life.  The victimology section should include information such as the deceased’s stress levels, personal relationships, coping methods, hobbies, interests, substance use, and dreams.  The last section is where the psychologist gives their expert opinion as to the manner and/or reason for the death.
Psychological Issues
Coping with the loss of a love one is hard, but trying to cope with the suicide or murder of a loved one is often nearly unbearable.  Survivors include co-workers, friends, and family members.  They describe the time following the murder of a loved one as a painful experience that is “intense, persistent, and inescapable” (Miller, 2009, p. 68, para. 1).  Survivors feel quite a bit of anguish, grief, and anger.  They have many questions that need to be answered.  They have a need to know what happened and, if murder is the case, a desire to see their loved one’s murderer brought to justice.  The psychological autopsy can supply them with some of the answers they seek, even if the answers are not exactly what the survivor wants to hear.  The psychological autopsy can bring a sense of closure to the survivor in a case of suicide and offer insight in the case of murder (Kurke & Scrivner, 2007; Ebert, 1987; Miller, 2009).
Everybody copes in their own way.  Some people need to handle the situation on their own, and may isolate themselves.  Some people just need time to grieve. Some people need a support system to help come to terms with their loss.  And other people need professional help from a mental health expert (Miller, 2009).  A psychologist can help a person cope with their loss by offering the survivor someone to talk to or suggesting support groups for them to attend (Miller, 2009).
A psychological autopsy can be very beneficial to an investigation.  If conducted properly, facts can be discovered about the reason the person was involved in a crime to begin with.  A variety of questions can be answered: Why was the victim at that particular place at that time?  Was the victim responsible for their own death?  Did the victim contribute to the events that lead to his or her death?  A psychological autopsy, when accompanied by a medical autopsy and a thorough investigation, can potentially be the evidence that ties the case together.  Since it is a fairly new investigative tool (Kurke & Scrivner, 2007); it will be interesting in the future to see how the psychological profile and its use will evolve.

Durand & Barlow. (2007). Essentials of Abnormal Psychology. Cengage Learning. Mason,           Ohio.
Ebert, B. W. (1987). Guide to Conducting a Psychological Autopsy. Professional Psychology:      Research and Practive 1987, Vol. 18 No 1. 52-56. Retrieved from:             http://web.ebscohost.com.lib.kaplan.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=0428a7cc-fd80- 4eef-9aa9-a97775f32341%40sessionmgr111&vid=2&hid=123
Kurke & Scrivner. (1995). Police Psychology into the 21st Century. Cengage Learning. New                     York
Loya, F. and Selkin, J., (1979).  Issues in the Psychological Autopsy of a Controversial Public Figure.  Professional Psychology.  February 1979, 87.  Retrieved From: http://content.ebscohost.com.lib.kaplan.edu/pdf19_22/pdf/ddd/pdh/pro/pro-10-1-87.pdf?T=P&P=AN&K=pro-10-1-87&S=L&D=pdh&EbscoContent=dGJyMNLe80Sep7Y4v%2BvlOLCmr0meqLBSr6a4TbKWxWXS&ContentCustomer=dGJyMOzprkm3prVQuePfgeyx44Dt6fIA
Miller, L. (2009). Family Survivors of Homicide: I. Symptoms, Syndromes, and Reaction             Patterns. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 37:67-79, 2009. Taylor & Francis       Group, LLC. Retrieved from:             http://web.ebscohost.com.lib.kaplan.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=6fa0ff6a-764c-  4271-9562-ff44373e2f1d%40sessionmgr14&vid=2&hid=12
Miller, L. (2009). Family Survivors of Homicide: II. Practical Therapeutic Strategies. The American Journal of Family Therapy, 37:85-98, 2009. Taylor & Francis Group, LLC.      Retrieved from:              http://web.ebscohost.com.lib.kaplan.edu/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=45432fde-14b5- 4593-9ad7-983f0e4e37b0%40sessionmgr12&vid=2&hid=12
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