With the recent death of singer Whitney Houston in Beverly Hills, there has been a rash of media reports regarding the police investigation into the death. Despite the sensational news headlines, celebrity deaths are for the most part, investigated the same way as any other death.
Once the police are notified of a death, the first officers at the scene will initially maintain the location as a possible crime scene. If paramedics arrived first, they will be interviewed as to what they observed and what they did while in the location. Oftentimes they can give a good initial indication as to the possible cause of death. The police will attempt to find out if the decedent had been under the care of a physician for any illnesses or conditions. They will also attempt to identify any possible witnesses (family members, friends, employees etc.) who had access to the decedent just prior to the death.
Once the detectives arrive at the scene, they will conduct an examination of the location for any possible evidence. If a homicide is not readily apparent, they will look at all potential manners of death. In suspected drug related deaths, they’ll be looking for such items as prescription bottles and, or, drug paraphernalia (syringes, narcotics, crack pipes etc). If it appears to be a suicide, they’ll be looking for indications on the body as to the cause of death such as a gunshot wound, ligature markings (hanging), slit wrists etc. They’ll also be looking for the instrument that caused the injury (gun, knife, rope, pills, etc.) along with the proximity of the body to the item(s). Interestingly, many times a suicide decedent does not leave a suicide note, contrary to popular belief.
Photographs of the death scene are usually taken. The detectives will attempt to interview anyone who had recent access to the decedent’s location. If video of the location is available (hotel/motel corridors etc.) they will be reviewed. Here in Los Angeles County, the decedent’s body is not moved by the detectives at the scene. The Coroner’s investigator at the scene maintains control of the body. He or she is the one that does a detailed examination of the body at the scene with the detectives closely looking on.
If the cause of death is not readily apparent (natural, suicide, accidental, homicide) the case is considered undetermined until an autopsy is conducted. Oftentimes the coroner’s office will hold off on a final determination of the cause of death until the toxicological results for drug analysis come back. This usually takes approximately thirty days. Here in Los Angeles County, the coroner’s office is the one that makes the final decision on the cause of death.