Investigation in the event of unexpected death
Information about the investigation conducted by the court in the event of an unexpected death can be downloaded in a. This brochure is an initiative of the forensic medicine service, the social work service and the mortuary at UZ Leuven, in conjunction with the Leuven public prosecutor’s office, victim reception service.
- Why does the court conduct an investigation?
- What procedure does a court investigation follow?
- What is an external examination of the body?
- What is an autopsy?
- Where is the autopsy carried out?
- When is the body released?
- How is the deceased identified?
- Taking leave: when and where?
- What happens to the clothes and other items?
- How long does the investigation by the court take?
- How can I contact the victim reception service of the public prosecutor’s office?
Why does the court conduct an investigation?
If a death occurs in unclear circumstances or when the cause of death is unclear, the public prosecutor’s office is informed of this. The public prosecutor’s office always intervenes in cases of clear violent death.
In situations like this the public prosecutor opens an investigation. This investigation is taken over by the examining magistrate if the public prosecutor so requires.
It is important to examine every lead. This is the only way to try and discover the truth and ensure greater clarity regarding the death. For this reason, in addition to the investigation conducted by the competent police authorities, the public prosecutor will often also call upon other experts, such as a medical examiner, a traffic expert, etc. These investigations are also in the interests of the deceased’s relatives, as they help gain a better understanding of what actually happened.
What procedure does a court investigation follow?
The public prosecutor or the examining magistrate leads the investigation. The police services try to find out about the circumstances surrounding the death by means of questioning, investigations in the neighbourhood and other, similar methods. The medical examiner examines the body. He can carry out an external examination or an internal examination (autopsy). The body is kept at the disposal of the public prosecutor during this time. This means that the municipal official in charge of the register of births, marriages and deaths cannot give permission for a funeral to be held, for instance. Only when the necessary examinations have been carried out does the competent magistrate as the public prosecutor’s office decide on whether to ‘release the body’. Meanwhile the investigation by the court continues until all the necessary data have been collected.
What is an external examination of the body?
In many cases the medical examiner is asked to come to the location in order to carry out an initial examination, a so-called external examination. It is preferable to carry this out at the place where the death occurred, but depending on the circumstances this can also be done at a funeral director’s or in a hospital. The external examination is a full physical examination, to search for the possible cause of death. At the same time, attention is also paid to a number of phenomena that can give indications of the time of death. It is often impossible to determine the cause of death by means of an external examination. In this case, the competent examining magistrate can decide to have an autopsy carried out. As a rule, this will always be done in the event of a (possible) crime.
What is an autopsy?
An autopsy (internal examination) can best be compared with a detailed surgical intervention. During this surgery the doctor carefully opens and examines the trunk and the head. If necessary the back and the limbs are also examined. After this detailed examination, which often takes several hours, all the incisions are closed again, just as after a surgical operation. The mortuary staff take care of the body as with every death. It is washed, clothed and placed on a bier.
An autopsy is regularly supplemented by more specialised examining methods that demand considerably more time (usually a few months), which means that it is often necessary to wait a long time for the final result. For instance, a so-called microscopic examination of the tissue will be carried out. Pieces of tissue (biopsies) are taken from various organs, which are examined under a microscope in the laboratory. Another frequent application is the toxicological examination. Using this technique, any traces of medication, drugs, poisonous substances, etc. can be detected in the blood in a specialised laboratory.
It is important for the examination to be as complete as possible. Nonetheless, this is always done with the necessary respect for the deceased and their relatives. The greatest possible efforts will always be made to care for the body and place it on a bier after the examination.
Where is the autopsy carried out?
The doctors at the Forensic Medicine Centre always carry out autopsies in the mortuary of UZ Leuven, Gasthuisberg campus. Everything is available here to enable a thorough and meticulous examination of the deceased in the best possible circumstances. This is why in most cases the body is transferred to the mortuary of UZ Leuven, where the autopsy will take place.
This transfer is undertaken by a funeral director at the request of the competent body. If possible, the choice of the family is taken into account here.
When is the body released?
For the family the release of the body means that they can make the necessary arrangements for the funeral. As a rule, the body is released by the magistrate of the public prosecutor’s office within two to three days. In exceptional cases it may take longer, for instance if there are problems with identification. In rare cases, only consent for burial will be given. In this case, the magistrate of the public prosecutor’s office has decided that cremation could endanger possible additional investigations. The family an always call upon the funeral director of their choice for the funeral. If the family so wishes, the body can be transferred to a different place to be prepared for the funeral.
How is the deceased identified?
The identity of the deceased is usually clear. Sometimes, however, the relatives may be asked to come and identify the body. If the body can no longer be identified by sight, such as in the event of serious mutilation or if death occurred a long time previously, the identification may take several days or even weeks, or occasionally even months. As much detail about the life of the deceased as possible should be collected in order to compare this with the observations made.
To this end, the family will be asked to help, however painful this may be. After all, there is often some conjecture about the identity of the deceased, without there being any certainty. For this reason, for instance, the forensic laboratory will be brought in to examine the fingerprints and a dentist will be asked to conduct a dental examination. Sometimes it is even necessary to carry out a comparative DNA test (test of the hereditary material), which means that the so-called DNA profile (‘DNA fingerprints') of the deceased is compared with the DNA profiles of family members.
It is extremely important, both for the investigation and for the relatives, to attain the greatest possible degree of certainty about the identity. A physical description and personal effect can provide important indications, but can never ensure total certainty. Everyone experiences exasperating uncertainty during this period, but the relative are nevertheless asked for their understanding.
Taking leave: when and where?
It is almost always possible to take leave of the deceased. In many cases, this can be done either before or after the autopsy. Sometimes a visit before the examination is not possible, such as in cases of serious injury or killing, when traces have to be sought, for instance. After an autopsy the wounds can be taken care of. Only with mutilation and when death has occurred a long time previously is it very difficult to take leave and this is advised against. This will always be discussed with the family.
It is possible to take leave of a relative during visiting hours at the UZ Leuven mortuary on Gasthuisberg campus. It is a good idea to take leave of the deceased as this helps to deal with the unexpected death.
If they wish, people can be accompanied. You can contact the Social Work service at UZ Leuven for this, or inform the mortuary staff.
A personal contribution to prepare for the funeral (clothing, soft toy, etc.) should be discussed with the mortuary staff or the funeral director.
What happens to the clothes and other items?
Sometimes these are seized by the public prosecutor's office for examination. It may be possible to reclaim them afterward with permission via the victim reception service of the public prosecutor’s office.
In addition, there are the personal belongings that remain with the deceased if they are not seized by the police and can be collected from the hospital or the mortuary.
How long does the investigation by the court take?
This is difficult to predict. Some investigations last several months, while others may even take years. For information about the progress of the investigation, to consult the judicial dossier, etc., it is best to contact the victim reception service of the public prosecutor’s office.
How can I contact the victim reception service of the public prosecutor’s office?
Legal district of Leuven
Leuven law courts
Weekdays from 9.00 am to 12 noon
Tel.: 016 21 45 50 - 016 21 45 51 - 016 21 45 52
Weekends: via the police
Legal district of Mechelen
Mechelen law courts
Keizerstraat 20, Mechelen
Mon-Tues-Thurs-Fri: 9.00 am to 12 noon
Tel.: 015 28 81 11
Wednesdays - Weekends: via the police
Legal district of Tongeren
Weekdays: 8.30 am to 12 noon and 1.30 pm to 4.00 pm.
Tel.: 012 39 96 02 - 012 39 96 03 - 012 39 96 87
Weekends: via the police
Legal district of Hasselt
Weekdays: 8.30 am to 12 noon and 1.30 pm to 4.30 pm.
Tel.: 011 24 66 50 - 011 24 66 51
Weekends: via the police