Lesson 19: Digital photography is a boon to modern death investigation.

In the last lesson, I wrote, “The chief medical examiner should provide a vision for applying new technologies to the medical examiner setting.” Although that lesson dealt mostly with computers, there is one technology that has brought about, in my opinion, a seismic shift in death investigation. That one technology is digital photography.

Combined with the expertise of a well-trained lay death investigator, digital photography transports the pathologist and medical examiner to the death scene in a fashion not heretofore seen. No longer do we need to wait for photographic images to be developed. No longer do we need to rely on crude Polaroid photographs. Digital photography allows professional quality images of a death scene to be available immediately for viewing.

This is huge.

One of the major weaknesses in death investigation has been the separation of the pathologist from the scene of death. Environmental factors play such a heavy role in the kinds of cases we investigate as forensic pathologists, yet before digital photography—unless we visited the scene personally—we had been denied immediate access to the kind of information that we need at the time of autopsy. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words. Although the investigator can describe what he might observe in a few words, it is no substitute for the availability of digital images. Now the pathologist can view the images immediately, even before performing an autopsy.

Digital photography also allows the acquisition and storage of numerous images very inexpensively. Today’s computer networks allow the electronic storage of these images without the costs associated with photograph development and physical storage. With every backup and every transfer to a different digital storage medium, the data from these images can be maintained readily and indefinitely, on-site or off-site. There is no longer a concern for deteriorating photographs, except for those taken before today.

With the database program we developed when I was a chief medical examiner, we were able to store and view the photographs with each case in the database immediately. Time-consuming trips to the file room were no longer necessary.

Law enforcement officers with concerns about a particular case also could send me their digital photographs by email or on a CD. No longer did we have to rely on their photography department to develop and to send me their prints. I could evaluate the issues much more quickly.

I realize there are some pathologists who prefer the old style of photography, particularly for court cases. Some of the photographic aesthetes among us also prefer the quality they perceive in old school photographs. Also, they may surmise, “Are not digital images more readily altered than conventional photographs?”

Any image can be altered, digital or otherwise. The pathologist or any witness is only required to testify that the images truly and accurately reflect what he or she saw. Also, the computer program can document any type of photo alteration that might be made on the system. I have never found the admission of digital images in court to be a problem.

Regarding the aesthetic qualities, I will leave that issue for those who care because I do not. I just want readily available images of more than adequate quality, and digital photographs allow that.

The availability of digital images for teaching, particularly with PowerPoint, is amazing. Digital photography has revolutionized the way we teach.

For the future, I envision forensic pathologists performing autopsies in centralized morgue facilities while trained medical examiner investigators perform scene investigations in more rural areas. They can transfer their information to the central facility via email or over a private network on the web. With that information, digital images of the scene, now made immediately available by this amazing technology, could accompany the investigative report. In light of an ever present shortage of forensic pathologists, this would allow a much more efficient way to conduct the important work of death investigation, even at long distances.