Autopsies in the United States

On 15 December 1978, the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology performed autopsies on seven people who had died in Jonestown on 18 November 1978. These represented the only extensive post-mortem examinations conducted in the United States, and indeed the only examinations beyond the cursory examinations on scores of bodies by Guyana chief pathologist Leslie Mootoo in the first few days after the Jonestown deaths.

Of the seven bodies which were autopsied, the government specified only one – that of Jim Jones – for examination. Four other bodies – those of Maria Katsaris, Carolyn Moore Layton, Ann Elizabeth Moore and Laurence Schacht – were autopsied at the request of their families. The bodies of Violatt Dillard and Richard Castillo were selected at random.

Despite the efforts of the pathologists, the autopsies revealed little about the nature and the manner of the deaths, and most of their conclusions were speculative and/or based upon media accounts of the deaths in Jonestown. The combination of heat and rain in Jonestown had accelerated the decomposition of all the bodies before they were removed. The further delay resulting from negotiations between the U.S. and Guyana governments, and then within the U.S. itself, on how to dispose of the bodies also contributed to the deterioration of physical evidence. The greatest destruction of forensic information occurred, however, when the bodies were embalmed prior to the autopsies.

The reports of the autopsies were released in April 1979, five months after the deaths. The reports follow:

Six of the autopsy reports appear from pages 8 through 43 at RYMUR 89-4286-2178. The seventh report – that of Maria Katsaris – appears at RYMUR 89-4286-2165.

The cover letter for the report on the autopsies was written by Col. William Cowan, the military pathologist in charge of the Dover operation, to the Justice Department’s Criminal Division on April 24. It is excerpted from RYMUR 89-4286-2178.

Cowan Letter to Justice Department Criminal Division, April 24, 1979

In March 1987, Col. Cowan joined two of his colleagues from AFIP in writing an article for the Journal of Forensic Scientists about the mortuary’s work in identifying and autopsying the Jonestown bodies. “Postmortem Findings of the Victims of the Jonestown Tragedy” includes extensive details, ranging from floor plan of the mortuary as it pertained to the processing of the bodies, to graphic photos of “extreme postmortem decomposition.”

An article by Rebecca Moore – whose sisters were Carolyn Moore Layton and Ann Elizabeth Moore – about the government’s handling of the bodies appears here.