They are unsettling and sought-after mementos of death. Morgue photos of District homicide victims are showing up in the hands of grieving relatives, who, after identifying loved ones lost to violence, can obtain a print to take home.
The D.C. government sells glossy pictures for $10 each.
It’s unusual, but not unheard of, for medical examiners to provide families with photos of departed kin, although most often it’s done only after the autopsy, the police investigation and court proceedings are complete. Practices differ across the country: As a rule, Maryland does not release photos to relatives or to anyone else; Virginia does, free, under tightly controlled circumstances.
Families of D.C. homicide victims aren’t criticizing the District for providing photos of the faces of the deceased. Some embrace the chance to have what they consider an important keepsake, even one that might make others cringe. It might be the only way to come to terms with the death. Or it might help fill an agonizing void for parents unable to witness their child’s last breath or even see the body at the funeral home.
“I want to see my baby,” said JoAnn Lee, who pulled out a morgue photo as she talked with a reporter about her daughter, Candance Reed, who was stabbed to death in November outside a bar in Northwest Washington. Lee, a 66-year-old Ohio resident, carries the photo with her in an envelope.
Tinamarie Spencer rushed to a hospital after her son Robert was shot in the chest in September, but staff workers denied her access to the 21-year-old’s body. She identified him from a photo at the D.C. medical examiner’s office that shows just his face, his lips taut. His mother says it shows that her son died smiling.
“Myself, and my son’s godmother needed that for reassurance that my son was at peace,” Spencer said after buying two photos.
Beverly Fields, a spokeswoman for the D.C. medical examiner’s office, said that photos are available to families and that the fee covers administrative and processing costs. The money goes into the city’s general treasury.
The District morgue relies on photos to make identifications. Relatives, she said, are “not able to see the body in person, so many do want a photo. That’s the closest thing they have.”
Officials were unable to say how many photos have been requested and sold. The medical examiner lists the prices — $10 for glossy or laser prints, $15 for 35mm slides — on the same fee schedule that lists charges of $150 for “body storage” and $75 for a report explaining a stillbirth.
The District is poised to get a new chief medical examiner, Roger Mitchell, currently an assistant state medical examiner in New Jersey. “We don’t provide photos to family members,” a spokesman there said. He declined to say what Mitchell’s policy might be once he arrives in the District, possibly in February. He said Mitchell would not consent to an interview until after the appointment is confirmed in Washington.
People mourn in different ways, some privately, others with public memorials such as flowers left on a tree at the scene of a car crash or a portrait on a T-shirt. Many compare a morgue photo to an open coffin at a funeral home, although in the latter the decedent is presented in a more peaceful way.
Gregory G. Davis, president of the National Association of Medical Examiners, said there is no one accepted practice. In Jefferson County, Ala, where he is the chief coroner, he said relatives sometimes request the photo used to identify the body. “We decline,” Davis said.
But, he said, relatives who want photos can get them once the autopsy report and police investigation are complete. The request has to come from an attorney, and all the photos are sent to the attorney, who can decide how to distribute them. “This is the last photo taken of the person, and people want to see it,” Davis said. “I know what’s involved in an autopsy, and I don’t want to see my wife or my children or my parents that way. But others clearly think differently.”
In Los Angeles County, a coroner who runs a gift shop called Skeletons in the Closet, which raises money for a program to prevent drunken driving and sells beach blankets with chalk outlines of bodies, says his office would not sell photos of the dead to be used as family relics. “You can buy towels but no photos,” said Ed Winter, the assistant chief.
Upon request and at no charge, New York authorities provide photos used for identification to relatives. Virginia also gives photos to the next of kin. But Maribeth Brewster, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Health, said a pathologist sits down with the relative to review the images — which can be brutally clinical and gruesome — to explain what was done and why.
In Maryland, the public can review autopsy reports but not photos. Spokesman Bruce Goldfarb said that only on rare occasions will officials bend the rules. Unlike in other states, Maryland’s medical examiner’s office does not handle identifications, leaving that task to law enforcement. Goldfarb said an exception was made for a woman who “was really in denial and could not believe her son had died.” She was allowed to see a photograph but not take it home. “We encourage people to do viewing at funeral homes, where there are family members and grief counselors,” he said.
Julia Dunkins, who runs a District support group called Survivors of Homicide, said she believes that only a fraction of relatives want postmortem images of loved ones. She said some might not have other photos of the person. “They didn’t get a chance to talk to them. This last photo is all they have to remember them by,” she said.
Dunkins’s then-28-year-old husband, John Baxter, was shot and killed in Northeast Washington in 1969, and her 24-year-old son, Jonathan Baxter — born the year his father was killed — was shot to death in Northwest Washington in 1993.
She identified both at the medical examiner’s office. Survivors now look at photos in which a shroud covers everything below the neck. Just the face is visible, and death is unmistakable.
“I don’t want a picture like that,” Dunkins said.