The Department of Defense announced today that the secretary of defense issued new guidance on procedures for investigations into deaths of any person held as a detainee in the custody of the U.S. Armed Forces.
Under this new guidance, when a death occurs, the commander of the detention facility or the unit exercising custody over an individual will immediately report the death to the responsible Army, Navy or Air Force investigative agency, which will, in turn, contact the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner (AFME). The AFME will determine whether an autopsy will be performed. Additionally, the regional combatant commander, through the chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, will notify the secretary of defense of any death of an enemy prisoner of war, retained person, civilian internee or anyone else detained while in U.S. military custody.
With this guidance the department has established a very high standard for all members of the DoD team with regard to the reporting and handling of a death of someone held in custody. This guidance details very strict procedures to ensure that the department can establish and record an official cause and manner of death in all cases involving detainees and others in U.S. custody.
The AFMEs do not make independent rulings as to whether crimes have occurred, but turn over their findings to the investigating agency as part of criminal investigations. All AFME medical examiners are board certified in anatomic, clinical and forensic pathology by the American Board of Pathology. For clarification purposes, manners of death include natural, accident, suicide, homicide, or undetermined. When a manner of death is determined to be homicide, it is a death that results from intentional (explicit or implied) or grossly reckless behavior of another person or persons. In medical examiner terms, homicide is not synonymous with murder, which is a legal determination; and homicide includes both criminal actions and excusable incidents (for example, self-defense, law enforcement, combat).
This new directive is part of a series of efforts to strengthen policies and eliminate procedural weaknesses that have come to light as a result of the deplorable events at Abu Ghraib prison.