A medical examiner autopsy is a detailed medical/surgical examination of a person’s body and individual internal organs after death. The function of the autopsy is to identify and document the presence or absence of diseases and/or injuries that can explain an individual’s death. Diseases and injuries are interpreted in the context of an accompanying investigation of the patient’s circumstances of death, the medical history, and toxicologic testing. The cause and manner of death are determined by synthesis of investigative, historical and autopsy information.

A medical examiner autopsy is performed or supervised by a forensic pathologist (a pathologist with specialized training and board certification in the practice of autopsy pathology and medicolegal death investigation). Medical examiner autopsies performed by the Johnson County Medical Examiner Department are conducted in a respectful medical environment that is very similar to a hospital operating room. Surgical techniques are used to remove and examine each organ; tissues and blood samples are selected for microscopic examination and toxicology testing.

In some cases it may be necessary to retain larger portions of tissues or even whole organs, such as when the brain needs to be examined in detail. After this detailed organ examination, which may require many weeks, the residual tissues are retained in a manner similar to the retention of other autopsy specimens. If family members want tissues returned after examination, it will be necessary to contact the Medical Examiner Department to arrange for the tissues to be sent to their funeral service provider.

An autopsy may be ordered by the Medical Examiner based upon his/her medical opinion that an autopsy is needed to assist in determining the cause and manner of death. In some cases an autopsy may be required by Iowa law due to the circumstances surrounding the death, even when the cause of death may appear to be obvious - such as a gunshot wound. A complete autopsy examination in a gunshot wound death, for example, can provide details necessary for determining the manner of death and information required for insurance purposes and legal proceedings.

The Johnson County Medical Examiner Department collaborates with the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics Department of Pathology (Iowa City, IA) for performance of forensic autopsies. Rarely, a Johnson County autopsy will be performed by the Iowa Office of the State Medical Examiner (Ankeny, IA). The Investigator assigned to the case will be able to inform the family at which of these locations the autopsy will occur.

There is no cost to the family for an autopsy that is ordered by the Johnson County Medical Examiner Department. An autopsy generally does not delay funeral services and will not prevent the option of a viewing of a loved one by family and friends.

The information contained within an autopsy report is confidential and treated as a medical record. The final report is available at no charge to the immediate and legal next of kin (spouse, adult child, parent, adult sibling, grandparent, guardian, in that order) and to those with written permission from the next-of-kin. Others who may receive copies of the autopsy report are treating physicians, law enforcement agencies and county attorneys investigating the death. The cause of death and manner of death as stated on the death certificate are public record and can be released, without family consent. Exceptions are if release of such information will jeopardize an ongoing law enforcement investigation, or if release could pose a clear and present danger to the public safety or the safety of an individual.

There are three ways to request a copy of the final autopsy report:

  • Complete the Autopsy Report Request Form and mail it to:
    Johnson County Medical Examiner
    808 S Dubuque St
    Iowa City, IA 52240
  • Print and scan a completed copy of the Autopsy Report Request Form and e-mail it to: [email protected]
  • Call the Johnson County Medical Examiner Department at (319) 339-6197.

If there is a request for a copy of the report from someone other than those legally entitled (e.g., an insurance company or a private attorney), the request must be submitted on letterhead and include a “Release of Information” form signed by the legal next of kin. Also include a $20 check made payable to the Johnson County Medical Examiner Department.

It generally requires at least six weeks for the final autopsy report to be available. However, this may be extended if additional testing is required by the forensic pathologist. Issuance of the death certificate may or may not be affected by any delay in the autopsy report. Every effort is made to complete the death certificate as soon as possible.