Establishing the time of death or the interval between the time of death and when a body is found (postmortem interval) typically cannot be determined with certainty. Unless death is witnessed, the exact time of death cannot be determined; however, sufficient information is often available to allow estimation of a range of time encompassing the actual moment of death. In general, the shorter the postmortem interval, the narrower the estimated time range. Conversely, a longer postmortem interval entails a broader range estimate and often a greater chance for error. No single observation about a dead body is a reliable or accurate indicator of the postmortem interval.

The most reliable estimates are based upon a combination of numerous observations made of the body and the scene of death. Observed conditions involving the body include rigor mortis, livor mortis, algor mortis and decomposition. The stomach contents may also help in determining the time of death. In addition to examining the body, it is also important to investigate the scene of death, during which time the environmental conditions should be documented. Environmental conditions, especially the temperature, are the most important factors affecting the changes the body undergoes after death. Observations made during the scene investigation help assess the body changes and may also offer additional information useful in estimating when death occurred. The combination of scene and body examinations will give the investigator the best chance of reliably estimating when death occurred.

The body observations should be made by someone with sufficient training and experience in death investigation as soon as possible after the body is found. The body should not be unnecessarily manipulated prior to making these observations. Changes in the environment, such as opening doors and windows or turning on air conditioning, should also be minimized until the observations are made.

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