Autopsy Report in a Murder Case in California

In People v. Dungo (2012) 55 Cal.4th 608, the defendant was charged with murder. The autopsy of the victim had been performed by Dr. Bolduc. At the time of trial, there was no indication that Dr. Bolduc was unavailable. (People v. Dungo, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 613.) Nevertheless, the prosecution called Dr. Lawrence, who testified that, in his opinion, based on the autopsy report and the accompanying photographs, the victim had died as a result of strangulation. Dr. Lawrence also listed certain conditions of the victim's body, as set forth in the autopsy report and/or the photographs, that supported his conclusion: neck hemorrhages, pinpoint hemorrhages of the eyes, the purple color of the face, bite marks on the tongue, and the absence of any signs of any other cause of death. Finally, based on the finding in the autopsy report that the victim's hyoid bone was not fractured, Dr. Lawrence opined that the strangulation lasted for at least two minutes. (Id. at p. 614.) The autopsy report itself was not admitted into evidence. (Id. at p. 615.) The Supreme Court held that the admission of this evidence did not violate the confrontation clause because the factual information in the autopsy report regarding the condition of the body was not testimonial. (People v. Dungo, supra, 55 Cal.4th at pp. 619-621.) It began by noting: "The prosecution's use of testimonial out-of-court statements 'ordinarily violates the defendant's right to confront the maker of the statements unless the declarant is unavailable to testify and the defendant had a prior opportunity for cross-examination.' . . . Testimonial out-of-court statements have two critical components. First, to be testimonial the statement must be made with some degree of formality or solemnity. Second, the statement is testimonial only if its primary purpose pertains in some fashion to a criminal prosecution." (Id. at p. 619.) The court concluded that an autopsy report's observations about the condition of the body -- as opposed to any conclusions based on those observations -- are not so formal as to be testimonial. (People v. Dungo, supra, 55 Cal.4th at pp. 619-620.) Rather, "they are comparable to observations of objective fact in a report by a physician who, after examining a patient, diagnoses a particular injury or ailment and determines the appropriate treatment. Such observations are not testimonial . . . . " (Ibid.) The court also concluded that "criminal investigation was not the primary purpose for the autopsy report's description of the condition of the victim's body; it was only one of several purposes." (People v. Dungo, supra, 55 Cal.4th at p. 621.) It explained that a coroner is statutorily required to determine the cause of certain types of death, including types that are not related to criminal activity. (Id. at p. 620.) It also noted, "The usefulness of autopsy reports, including the one at issue here, is not limited to criminal investigation and prosecution; such reports serve many other equally important purposes. For example, the decedent's relatives may use an autopsy report in determining whether to file an action for wrongful death. And an insurance company may use an autopsy report in determining whether a particular death is covered by one of its policies. Also, in certain cases an autopsy report may satisfy the public's interest in knowing the cause of death, particularly when (as here) the death was reported in the local media. In addition, an autopsy report may provide answers to grieving family members." (Id. at p. 621.)