Investigating Gun Shot Wounds

Certain routine steps  are taken in investigating fatal injury inflicted by a firearm either as a result of foul play or accident.’ A fatal gunshot case presents many challenging medicolegal problems which involve cooperation among the forensic pathologist, firearms identification expert, laboratory technician and the police. The belief that an “expert” can view the body and without further corroborating evidence testify in court as to the range at which this person was shot and the calibre of the weapon is one of the most common fallacies.’ Since the average person interested in law enforcement is generally not trained in medicine it seems best to discuss the information which can be obtained from an examination of a gunshot victim’s body. Suppose a male corpse is brought to a coroner’s office for the purpose of identification and determination of cause of death. First, it must be established whether or not the individual has been shot and, secondly, whether or not the gunshot was the cause of death. If no projectiles can be found in the body through X-ray or exploration, the question of whether the individual has been shot is by no means resolved. For example, multiple wounds inflicted by an ice pick in the back oftentimes gives the appearance of buckshot wounds. Bullet wounds, from external appearance, are of two types; entrance and exit.

Few injuries resulting from the discharge of a firearm rule out the possibility of foul play. Firearms identification is also known as “forensic ballistics.” However, since the science of ballistics relates to the study of projectiles in flight the term firearms identification seems preferable.  A review of the leading American text, Hatcher, Jerry & Weller, Firearms Identification, Investigation and Evidence, Stackpole Company, Harrisburg (1957), should quickly dispel any doubts on this matter.

For an excellent discussion of the historical role of the coroner in identifying deceased persons see Harvard, The Detection of Secret Homicide, Cambridge (1960).  Smith and Glaister, Recent Advances in Forensic Medicine, Blakeston’s, Philadelphia (1939) ch. 1, contains a variety of material on the mechanics of gunshot injury.  The use of X-ray examination to locate projectiles or fragments of pellets is particularly important where the investigator wishes to weigh the bullet in order to have some approximation of caliber.  Smith and Glaister, op. cit. supra n. 5 at 20. Published by EngagedScholarship@CSU, 1964 1 FATAL GUNSHOT WOUNDS.

On this Episode 

On this show we talk to Dr Judy Melinek about the issues in investigating gun shot wounds.  We talk about types of wounds and what obstacles investigators can encounter in a fatal shooting incident.

Article Reprinting from Section of:   Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology

About the Author
Darren is a 30 year veteran of law enforcement and criminal investigations. He currently serves as an investigator for the Crawford County Missouri coroner’s office. He holds credentials as an instructor for the Missouri Sheriff’s Training Academy, has served as president of the Missouri Medical Examiners and Coroners Association, and is certified and credentialed in numerous fields of investigation. He holds the position of lead instructor and facilitator for the Coroner Talk™ community as he speaks and writes in the area of death investigation and scene management.

2 comments on Investigating Gun Shot Wounds

  1. Debra Sinick says:

    What can you tell me about penetrating gun shot wound,right side of forehead n backward leftward n slightly downward n deformed jacketed bullet recovered from the left occipital scalp to a 6’2 167lbs young man. Shooter was 5’10;167lbs

    1. Darren Dake says:

      Debra, This does not really give me enough to make a suggestion. The angle is an obvious trajectory as written but without further case info, photos, or autopsy report – I could not give an actual opinion. Do you have any of the report or investigation information? What exactly is the question you would like me to help you with?

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