Medical Examiner Services

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The responsibility of the Institute’s Medical Examiner Services, as specified by state law (Chapter 49.25 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure), is to determine cause and manner of death, and to document and preserve evidence. The Institute investigates sudden and unexpected deaths and deaths resulting from physical or chemical injury. The investigation may include a variety of disciplines below in order to determine the cause and manner.

The medical examination may include an external examination of the decedent, or a complete autopsy. An autopsy is a complete external and internal examination of a dead body. Findings are documented in unbiased reports that are available to families, the police, attorneys and courts.

Forensic Anthropology & Emergency Management

Forensic Anthropology

The Forensic Anthropology Division brings expertise in skeletal recovery and analysis to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. The Division is comprised of three doctoral level physical anthropologists and an identification specialist. The forensic anthropologists are responsible for the recovery of skeletal, buried and severely burned remains; developing a skeletal profile and analysis of bone traumas, pathologies, and taphonomic changes of skeletal cases; and consulting on bone traumas and pathologies on non-skeletal cases. They are also directly involved in the identification of unidentified decedents through compiling decedent descriptions, disseminating the descriptions, and conducting skeletal radiograph comparisons to establish positive identification. Under the direction of the Anthropology Division are the Skeletal Recovery Team and the Identification Unit.

The mission of the HCIFS Forensic Anthropology Division is to provide anthropologic consultation at the direction of the medical examiner using methods and standards accepted by the field of forensic anthropology to ensure all avenues for identification are explored for each unidentified decedent, to collect and submit family reference DNA samples, to maintain records of all DNA identification cases, and to refer all unclaimed decedents for county burial.

Identification Unit

The Identification Unit (ID Unit) is an innovative yet fundamental component of the Forensic Anthropology Division. Decedents are often discovered in circumstances where there is no information regarding the individual's identity. These decedents are temporarily listed as "Unknown" or entered into the records by a tentative name. The ID Unit works with law enforcement and other resources to identify the decedent. The Identification Unit is comprised of Forensic Anthropologists and an Identification Specialist who participates in and also tracks the identification process on each of these cases.

Scientific identification is required when a person cannot be viewed by family members or is a homicide victim. A scientific identification is established when a fingerprint, dental x-ray, or skeletal x-ray taken before death is positively compared to a fingerprint, dental x-ray, or skeletal x-ray taken after death. When an appropriate record is unavailable, the DNA of the decedent is compared to the DNA of a biological relative. If a strong kinship index is established between the family reference sample and the decedent sample, the decedent is classified as positively identified through DNA comparison. All tentatively identified decedents and homicide victims must be scientifically identified prior to release from the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. An exception is the release of a decedent based on a presumptive identification. A presumptive identification is made when a decedent is viewable, the family does not intend to cremate the body and the attending pathologist and Chief or Deputy Chief Medical Examiner are comfortable with the circumstances. A decedent is not cremated until positively identified.

When an unidentified decedent is received, the ID Unit staff compiles a decedent description which includes all identifying markers: the demographics (age, race, sex, and stature); scars; marks; tattoos; and personal items. The descriptions are released to local missing persons units, National Crime Information Center, HCIFS website, and National Association of Medical Examiner's Unidentified Decedent website at All leads gained through the various agencies are compared to the decedent descriptions for possible matches.

Friends and family members searching for a missing loved one are directed to the ID Unit. The ID Unit staff will then compare the description of the missing individual to all unknown decedents currently within the facility. ID Unit members cannot initiate a search beyond those decedents received by the HCIFS. All individuals who need to report missing loved ones are strongly encouraged to report the missing individual to law enforcement. Only a law enforcement agency can initiate a regional and national search.

The ID Unit staff also attempt to locate family or friends to notify them of a loved one's demise. If the next of kin is not found through multi-faceted search, the Identification Specialist forwards the name of the decedent to the local newspapers for assistance in locating the next of kin through a published notice. If next of kin is not found or the decedent remains unidentified, he/she is referred to Harris County Social Services Bereavement Services (HCSS) for burial. The Identification Specialist also serves as the liaison with HCSS regarding release of decedents who are eligible for low-cost county burial services.

Emergency Management

The mission of the Forensic Emergency Management Team is to ensure that the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences is prepared to respond to any disaster or incident that does or has the potential to disrupt the agency’s capacity to perform its function. This includes incidents that may result in a surge in the number and complexity of fatalities.

The Institute is unique among medical examiners offices in that it has integrated its Emergency Management and Forensic Investigation functions (two typically distinct functions). This integration incorporates a forward-looking emergency management perspective into the day-to-day operations of the death investigation process in the interest of maximizing the efficiency of daily operations and the emergency preparedness of the Institute as a whole. The integration results in timelier scene response, enhanced inter-agency cooperation and better overall disaster response preparedness.

The FIEM division has developed plans, trainings, and exercises to prepare the Institute to respond to a variety of incidents, including hurricanes, floods, and mass fatality incidents. The Institute’s forensic investigators are regularly incorporated into trainings and exercises along with responders from local and regional agencies to ensure our ability to work together as a team when the need arises.

In spring 2013, the region acquired a Disaster Portable Morgue Unit (DPMU) to provide the space and equipment required for mobile morgue operations. This unit is available statewide as well as within Harris County to provide full-scale morgue services should an incident occur that damages the Institute’s facility, has the potential for contamination, or requires morgue operations to be located in close proximity to an incident site.

Click below to view a time-lapse video of the DPMU set up in the span of approximately six hours.


DPMU News Coverage:

Harris County unveils new portable morgue unit KHCW/Channel 39, June 17, 2014

(En Español) Preparan morgue móvil para atender desastres Univision/Channel 45, June 18, 2014

Skeletal Recovery Team

The Skeletal Recovery Team (SRT) is a specialized unit consisting of Forensic Anthropologists and Forensic Investigators. All members of the SRT have post-graduate training in human skeletal anatomy and skeletal recovery methods. The team responds to skeletal, buried, and severely burned scenes, using organized search strategies and archaeological methods to properly search, excavate and document the scenes. The SRT works to ensure skeletal and burned decedents are fully documented and carefully recovered for medical-legal examination and identification.

Forensic Entomology

Forensic Entomology is the study of insects and insect lifecycles for death investigation purposes. The Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences is the only medical examiners’/coroners’ office in the United States with a full-time forensic entomologist on staff who responds to scenes of death with forensic investigators and has the ability to provide forensic pathologists and law enforcement agencies with analysis of forensic entomological evidence to assist in death investigations.

The forensic entomologist brings a specialized skill set to death investigations that enables a more thorough evaluation of the circumstances surrounding a death. The entomologist collects and examines entomological evidence to estimate a time-since-death interval. A small, validated time-since-death interval often is critical in establishing a timeline surrounding criminal activity or in limiting numerous potential matches when working a case where the deceased individual is unidentified. Entomological evidence can also be used to document movement of a deceased individual from one environment, or place, to another. In some instances deaths can be directly related to insect stings, and in these instances, an entomologist’s input can be critical in determining cause of death and in determining public health implications.

Forensic Investigations

Forensic Investigations

The primary function of the Institute’s Forensic Investigations Division is to conduct death investigations in accordance with Article 49.25 of the Texas Code of Criminal Procedure.

The Institute’s forensic investigators respond to scenes of death and conduct investigations over the phone for deaths that occur in healthcare settings. In each case, investigators gather preliminary circumstantial and historical information about the deceased individual from law enforcement, family and medical personnel. At a scene, forensic investigators conduct a preliminary physical examination of a body including the collection and preservation of physical and biological evidence for further forensic investigation and testing. Investigators document their findings with photographs and a variety of measurements and readings, and develop a written summary of their findings for review by a forensic pathologist.

In accordance with the policies and procedures set forth by the Executive Director and Chief Medical Examiner and designees, the FI staff manage the secure transport and receipt of deceased individuals and associated evidence and/or property to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences. The division is also responsible for the notification of the next of kin.

The Institute’s forensic investigators maintain diverse areas of specialized undergraduate and graduate education and expertise, including forensic science, criminal justice, forensic anthropology and forensic entomology.

The Institute’s forensic investigators maintain diverse areas of specialized undergraduate and graduate education and expertise, including forensic science, criminal justice, forensic anthropology, forensic entomology, and forensic nursing.

Death investigation requires timely response and as a result, the division is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Family Assistance

Through its Family Assistance Service, the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences helps families during the initial crises of death by providing extended services.

The Family Assistance Service is staffed by social workers to serve as the primary contact for families regarding deaths that fall under the jurisdiction of the medical examiner and to provide families with guidance to victim’s service agencies and appropriate social support groups within the community. All suggested services are nonprofit and in close geographic proximity to families in need.

Click here to learn more about assistance available to families.

The family assistance coordinator is also available to respond to and assist forensic investigators at death scenes. At a scene, the family assistance coordinator can help family members in real time as well as serve as a liaison between the family and the investigator in obtaining information critical to the investigation of a death.

The Institute, through its Family Assistance Service, also partners with area chaplaincy organizations to provide in-person death notifications. The chaplains, who are volunteers with local law enforcement agencies, can deliver in-person, face-to-face death notifications with sensitivity and respect for the deceased and their families.

Morgue Services

Morgue Services

Funeral Home Transporters:

Morgue Release Hours:

  • Monday through Friday: 9a.m. to 5p.m.
  • Weekends and Harris County-observed holidays: 12p.m. to 5p.m.

Release Requirements:

When arriving to pick up a deceased, Funeral Homes are required to present the following:

Click here to monitor the release/transport status of a case 24-hours-a-day

The Morgue Services Staff assists pathologists with forensic post-mortem examinations to include the collection and preservation of evidence and ensures safekeeping of decedent personal effects. When examinations are completed the morgue services staff will facilitate the release of decedents to family preference funeral homes.
Forensic Imaging

Forensic Imaging

The mission of Forensic Imaging is to provide photographic documentation for each case processed through the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences, and to promote a professional visual quality to all photographic, video, web and graphic presentation produced by the office.

Forensic Imaging performs a variety of functions within the Institute of Forensic Sciences including forensic photography, photo documentation of physical evidence for the crime laboratory, graphic design, web design and video production. A staff of forensic photographers are chiefly responsible for photographic documentation of each autopsy performed at the Institute. On average, more than 500,000 photographs are taken each year at the Institute.

Forensic Imaging staff serves as photography instructors and consultants to other Institute of Forensic Sciences’ personnel as well as law enforcement, criminal justice and medical personnel in and around Harris County. Forensic Imaging’s Forensic Photography Internship provides an opportunity for photography students to get hands-on experience and training in forensic photography applications.

Forensic Imaging provides multimedia services for the Institute through the development of print materials and publications as well as the development of technical solutions for training and education through various platforms including web, video, and print.




At the time of autopsy, the effects of many disease processes, injuries and toxic effects are readily recognizable with the naked eye. However, some pathological changes will require microscopic examination for recognition or to provide adequate documentation. In order for organs to be examined under the microscope, a small sample ("biopsy") of each organ to be examined, must be chemically processed, mounted on a glass slide and appropriately stained. The HCIFS employs four full-time, trained histotechnologists to process these tissue samples for microscopic examination by the pathologists. The histotechnologists also play an active role in the archiving of glass slides, "wet tissue" samples, and other anatomical specimens as may be deemed necessary for civil or criminal litigation.