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Elevated Body Core Temperature in Medico-Legal Investigation of Violent Death

Demierre, Nadine MD*; Wyler, Daniel MD; Zollinger, Ulrich MD*; Bolliger, Stefan MD*; Plattner, Thomas MD*

The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology: June 2009 - Volume 30 - Issue 2 - p 155-158
doi: 10.1097/PAF.0b013e31819a04a6
Original Article

Pathologically elevated body core temperature, measured at the death scene, is an important finding in medico-legal investigation of violent deaths. An abnormally high rectal temperature at any death scene may point to an underlying pathology, the influence of certain drugs or a hidden cerebral traumatism, and death by suffocation which would remain undetected without further medico-legal investigations. Furthermore, hyperthermia and fever, if unrecognized, may result in an erroneous forensic estimation of time since death in the early postmortem period by the “Henssge method.” By a retrospective study of 744 cases, the authors demonstrate that hyperthermia is a finding with an incidence of 10% of all cases of violent death. The main causes are: influence of drugs, malignant tumors, cerebral hypoxia as a result of suffocation, infections, and systemic inflammatory disorders. As a consequence it must be stated, that hyperthermia must be excluded in every medico-legal death scene investigation by a correct measurement of body core temperature and a comparison between the cooling rate of the body and the behavior of early postmortem changes, notably livor and rigor mortis.

From the *Institute of Forensic Medicine, University of Berne, Berne, Switzerland; and †Institute of Forensic Medicine, University of Basel, Basel, Switzerland.

Manuscript received May 1, 2007; accepted May 13, 2007.

Reprints: Nadine Demierre, MD, Route du Centre 10, 1752 Villars-sur-Glâne, Switzerland. E-mail:

© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.