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Psychological Autopsy

  1. James L. Knoll IV1,
  2. Robert R. Hazelwood2

Published Online: 15 SEP 2009

DOI: 10.1002/9780470061589.fsa302

Wiley Encyclopedia of Forensic Science

Wiley Encyclopedia of Forensic Science

How to Cite

Knoll, J. L. and Hazelwood, R. R. 2009. Psychological Autopsy. Wiley Encyclopedia of Forensic Science. .

Author Information

  1. 1

    SUNY Upstate Medical University, Syracuse, NY, USA

  2. 2

    Academy Group, Inc., Manassas, VA, USA

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 15 SEP 2009

Abstract

The psychological autopsy is a procedure that assists in the classification of equivocal deaths, where the manner of death is not immediately clear. The procedure involves a thorough and systematic retrospective analysis of the decedent's life, with a particular focus on suicide risk factors, motives, and intentions. It has been used for almost 50 years to assist medical examiners, collect research data, inform suicide prevention efforts, and as a forensic tool in courts. The psychological autopsy is a time-consuming process that requires the investigator to analyze all relevant data from a wide array of sources so that a rich psychological biography emerges. A properly conducted psychological autopsy provides a level of important detail far beyond that obtained from a simple review of demographic data or a police narrative. The psychological autopsy methodology has met admissibility standards in a few criminal and civil cases. However, the problem of a lack of standardization has been cited as a main limitation. Until a standardized protocol is developed and accepted, admissibility will likely be determined on a case-by-case basis.

Keywords:

  • psychological autopsy;
  • equivocal death;
  • postmortem suicide risk assessment;
  • admissibility;
  • limitations;
  • standardization