The Psychological Autopsy (PA) is used for research; it functions as a medical-legal tool to aid in the certification of deaths. It is also a forensic procedure for both criminal and civil cases. The PA has become an invaluable tool in wrongful death cases, as well as in matters of suicide.
The procedures for a PA include interviews with appropriate informants to obtain their life history, recent life events, their psychiatric/psychological data and any suicidal clues that may have presented themselves. The goal is to obtain information in 3 areas: Intent, Motivation, and Lethality of behavior.
- Intent includes expressed verbal threats, previous suicide attempts or threats, stress, losses, clinical depression and alcoholism etc.
- Motivation may include anger, revenge, guilt, shame, as well as a wish to escape mental or physical pain.
- Lethality is the probability that the suicidal behavior would result in death.
Since 1964 I have conducted hundreds of Psychological Autopsies; initially as a deputy coroner for Los Angeles county, while a psychologist with the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center and later as a consultant in civil litigation cases. Over many years, the Psychological Autopsy has been validated as an accurate method of distinguishing suicidal from accidental deaths.