Yes, It’s a Thing: Medical Examiners Do Not Always Show Up at Murder Scenes

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In some locations, typically rural, a medical examiner does not always go to the scene of a homicide. Instead, EMS transports the body to a local hospital where a doctor examines the victim. If an autopsy is to be performed the body is then transported to a state morgue which could be hours away.

In Virginia, for example, there are only four state morgue locations/district offices (Manassas, Norfolk, Richmond, and Roanoke) where autopsies are conducted. Each of the district offices is staffed by forensic pathologists, investigators, and various morgue personnel.

The Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is located in Richmond (the office where Patricia Cornwell’s fictional M.E., Kay Scarpetta, worked). This is also the M.E.’s office that conducted the autopsies on the homicide cases I investigated. The real-life Kay Scarpetta was our M.E.

There are several local M.E.’s in Virginia (somewhere around 150, or so) but they do not conduct autopsies. Their job is to assist the state M.E. by conducting field investigations, if they see fit to do so, and many do not. Mostly, they have a look at the bodies brought in to the hospitals by EMS, sign death certificates, and determine whether or not the case should be referred to the state M.E.’s office for autopsy. They definitely do not go to all death scenes. Some do, but not all.

Me standing on the left at a murder scene where a drug dealer was executed by rival gang members who then hid the body in a wooded area. I was asked to assist a sheriff’s office with the investigation. The medical examiner was called but elected to not go to the scene. The body and sheet used by the suspects to drag the victim were placed into a body bag and then transported to the morgue via EMS ambulance.

Pursuant to § 32.1-283 of the Code of Virginia, all of the following deaths are investigated by the OCME:

  • any death from trauma, injury, violence, or poisoning attributable to accident, suicide or homicide;
  • sudden deaths to persons in apparent good health or deaths unattended by a physician;
  • deaths of persons in jail, prison, or another correctional institution, or in police custody (this includes deaths from legal intervention);
  • deaths of persons receiving services in a state hospital or training center operated by the Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services;
  • the sudden death of any infant; and
  • any other suspicious, unusual, or unnatural death.

* Remember, “investigated” does not mean they have to go to the actual crime scene.

Again, me on the left as a sheriff’s office crime scene investigator points out the location of spent bullet casings, drag marks, and a blood trail. Pictured in the center are a county sheriff and prosecutor. The M.E. elected to not travel to the scene. As good luck would have it, we had the killers in custody at the conclusion of a nonstop 36-hour investigation.

After a lengthy interrogation, two of the four confessed to the murder. Of course, they each pointed to someone else as the shooter, and he, the actual shooter, placed the blame on his partners. But all four admitted to being present when the murder occurred and all four served time for the killing.

In the areas far outside the immediate area of Virginia’s four district offices of the chief medical examiner, where officials rely on local, part time medical examiners, it is typically police detectives/officers who determine when a body can be removed from the scene. EMS, after checking for signs of life, stand by until the police instruct them to transport the body.

If the local M.E. shows up, and they’re almost always called, he/she will have a say in when the body is to be removed, but it’s rare that they do anything other than gather information for their notes and discuss possibilities and evidence with the police investigators. In many cases, the local M.E.’s will simply tell the calling detective to have EMS transport the body to the hospital morgue and they’ll take a look when they have a chance. They’ll sometimes ask to speak to the EMS person in charge of their crew. This, the instruction to transport the body, is especially so when the call comes during the overnight hours.

The pay for local M.E’s in Virginia is a “whopping” $150 per case, if the case is referred to the state is one that falls under their jurisdiction. They receive an extra $50 if they actually go to a crime scene. Again, many do not.

The requirements to become a local M.E. in Virginia are:

  • A valid Virginia license as a doctor of medicine or osteopathy, Nurse Practitioner, or Physician Assistant
  • An appointment by Virginia’s chief medical examiner
  • A valid United States driver’s license

The four district offices, however, employ forensic pathologists who conduct all autopsies. Obviously, a physician’s assistant is not qualified to conduct an autopsy, nor are they trained as police/homicide investigators.

Keep in mind, things are never the same/uniform across the country. It’s always best, if you’re going for 100% realism, to check with someone in the area where your story is set. The rules and regulations on one side of the country may not be the same on the other. And the middle of the country may also be totally different. For example, in one Ohio county, a coroner there mandated that autopsies be performed for all deaths that occurred as results of vehicle crashes. This is not so in other areas of the country, or even in other locations in Ohio. By the way, at the time, his office received $1,500 per autopsy performed, with $750 of the sum going to the pathologist performing the exam.

*Thanks to the good folks at crimescenewriter for the idea for today’s article.

 

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The Choking Game: Despair, Demise, and Dismay

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Garrett Pope, Jr. was a typical kid who loved doing typical kid things—riding his bike and going fishing. He also enjoyed playing games, such as football and lacrosse.

Garrett, an eleven-year-old, was found dead in his room around 4 p.m. last Wednesday. He died due to accidental asphyxiation while playing another game that far too many young people play, the choking game.

A CDC report titled Unintentional Strangulation Deaths from the “Choking Game” Among Youths Aged 6–19 Years — United States, 1995–2007, stated:

“The ‘choking game’ is defined as self-strangulation or strangulation by another person with the hands or a noose to achieve a brief euphoric state caused by cerebral hypoxia. Participants in this activity typically are youths. Serious neurologic injury or death can result if strangulation is prolonged. In recent years, news media reports have described numerous deaths among youths attributed to the choking game. Because no traditional public health dataset collects mortality data on this practice, CDC used news media reports to estimate the incidence of deaths from the choking game. This report describes the results of that analysis, which identified 82 probable choking-game deaths among youths aged 6-19 years, during 1995-2007. Seventy-one (86.6%) of the decedents were male, and the mean age was 13.3 years. Parents, educators, and health-care providers should become familiar with warning signs that youths are playing the choking game .”

As a police detective, I had the unpleasant task of investigating the untimely deaths of many people, children included. One such case involved a young boy who’d slipped out of his home to visit an abandoned factory, the location he’d chosen to play “the game.”

Here, in a mere forty-five words, is what I discovered when I arrived at the scene.

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Factory.
Massive, abandoned.
Machinery, steel dinosaurs.
Tangled debris.

Rust.

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Rats.
Shadows, graffiti.
Glass, jagged shards.
Footsteps echo.

Cold.

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Hallway.
Leather, squeaking.
Keys rattle, jingle.
Nervous, anxious.

Fear.

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There.
Hanging, swinging.
Rope, rafter, neck.
Boy, dead.

Twelve.

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Shoes.
One on.
Other on floor.

The choking game.

~

* Please, talk to your children. Explain the dangers of this “game,” and be alert to warning signs that your kids may be experimenting or “playing.”

The CDC’s study indicated that “few of the parents of children who died had been familiar with the choking game. Parents, educators, and health-care providers should learn about the choking game and be able to recognize any of the following warning signs in youths: mention of the choking game (or the game by its other names); bloodshot eyes; marks on the neck; frequent, severe headaches; disorientation after spending time alone; and ropes, scarves, and belts tied to bedroom furniture or doorknobs or found knotted on the floor. Medical examiners and coroners should be aware of the choking game as a possible explanation for deaths from self-inflicted strangulation in this age group that otherwise might be miscategorized as suicides. In addition, better mortality surveillance is needed, and more research should be conducted (e.g., questions on youth-behavior surveys regarding awareness of and involvement in the choking game) to determine prevalence, risk factors, and protective factors that will lead to effective interventions aimed at reducing or eliminating choking-game participation and deaths.”

* Factory photos by Sunday K. Kaminski

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April Showers Bring…Death

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Why is it that law enforcement officials often dread turning the page from March to April? Well…

  • April 15, 1865 – President Abraham Lincoln died from a gunshot wound inflicted the night before.
  • April 15, 1912 – More than 1,500 people lost their lives when the Titanic sank in the North American Sea.
  • April 20, 1914 – The Colorado National Guard, along with union guards, attacked and killed numerous striking coal workers in Ludlow, Colorado. Included in those killed were two women and several children who were asphyxiated and burned to death. The total death toll in the Ludlow Massacre was approximately two dozen.
  • April 4, 1968 – Dr. Martin Luther King was shot and killed in Memphis, Tennessee.
  • April 19, 1993 – Seventy-six people were killed when the FBI stormed the Branch Davidians’ compound in Waco, Texas.
  • April 19, 1995 – Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. 168 people were killed with another 600 injured in the blast.
  • April 24, 1995 – Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, killed his final victim.
  • April 20, 1999 – Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 13 people and wounded more than 20 others at Columbine High School in Colorado. The two shooters committed suicide. They’d planned their attack for a day earlier but decided to wait until the 20th…Hitler’s birthday.
  • April 16, 2007 – Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others on the Virginia Tech campus in Blacksburg, Virginia. He committed suicide as police moved in to capture him.
  • April 3, 2009 – Jiverly Antares Wong shot and killed 13 people and wounded 4 others at the American Civic Association in Binghamton in New York. Wong later committed suicide.
  • April 2, 2012 – One L. Goh shot and killed 7 people at Oikos University, a Korean Christian College in Oakland, California.
  • April 6, 2012 – Kake England and Alvin Watts randomly shot and killed 2 black men and a black woman, and wounded 2 others in Tulsa, Oklahoma. England said the killings were in response to the killing of his father by a black man two years earlier.
  • April 15, 2013 – Chechen brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev detonated two pressure cooker bombs during the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring over 260 others.

Lets fast forward to 2016 where people are trying their best to continue the spring tradition of murder. Chicago, for example:

Chicago Murders in April, 2016

April 1st – 8 male victims

April 2 – 10 males, 1 female

April 3 – 13 males

April 4 – 8 males

April 5 – 3 males, 2 females

April 6 – 7 males

April 7 – 14 males, 1 female

April 8 – 2 males, 1 female

April 9 – 3 males

April 10 – 9 males

April 11 – 1 male

By the way, the total shootings in Chicago so far in 2016 – 858. The homicide total from January 1, 2016 through today (April 11) is 156.

Total shooting victims in Chicago in the year 2015 – a staggering 2,988 (source – Chicago Tribune). 488 people were murdered in 2015.

In comparison, there’ve been 61 homicides in Baltimore in 2016, with 5 occurring in April. Baltimore counted 344 total homicides in 2015.

*Sources provide slight differences in totals, but they’re all close to the same.

Of course, there are other important deadly dates to remember in April, including…

April 12, 1861 – The American Civil War began, with the first shots being fired at Ft. Sumter in South Carolina.

April 20, 1889 – Adolf Hitler was born.

April 20, 2010 – The Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded, killing eleven workers and countless wildlife. Massive amounts of oil flowed for 87 days before the well was eventually capped.

April 4, 2015 – Officer Michael Slager fatally shot an unarmed Walter Scott as he ran away from him. Slager stopped Scott for a minor traffic infraction and it was during the stop when Scott fled. Citizen video footage recorded the incident and clearly showed Slager firing his weapon eight times. Scott was hit a total of five times—three rounds in the back, one in the buttocks, and one to the ear. Slager was charged with murder and was jailed. However, he is currently out on bond.

April Good News

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April 8, 2002 – Ray Krone was released from prison after serving 10 years, including 2 years on death row, after DNA evidence proved his innocence. Ray shared his story here on The Graveyard Shift back in 2013. He still travels across the country as an advocate for the wrongly imprisoned.

~

*Sources show slight differences in shooting and homicide totals, but they’re all close to the same final numbers.

 

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How “Stuff” Helps Detectives Solve Murders

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Much like a writer’s intricately plotted tale of fictional murder and the macabre, evidence discovered at actual crime scenes also tells a story. And, with these valuable clues safely collected, bagged, and tagged, detectives set out on their own killer-exposing hero’s journey.

Here’s how homicide investigators use crime-scene evidence in their quests to solve real-life mysteries.

  1. Broken/Shattered Glass – fracture analysis can show the type of force used to break the glass, direction and angle of break, and the sequence of breaks and force used.

When packaging broken glass, wrap in paper. Smaller pieces may be placed inside appropriate size cartons.

  1. Hairs – testing determines if human or non-human, race, body area, stage of decomposition, artificial treatments (hair coloring agents, etc.), drug use.

When packaging hairs, double packaging in paper is best. However, if the hair is completely dry, plastic will work in a pinch. Hairs recovered from different locations must be packaged separately and labeled accordingly. Tape all packaging seams.

  1. Automobile Pieces, Parts, and Debris (left behind by crash, explosion, etc.) – paint and part analysis for vehicle make and model determination, tire impression (possible make and model), recovery of Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), trajectory analysis of damage by firearms (bullet holes), accelerants used in arson cases, analysis of blood and other body fluids.
  1. Explosions – examination and analysis of trace evidence, such as hair, fibers, glass, blood, soils, fabric, fingerprints, DNA, tool marks, bone (DNA, human/non-human, age, race, and sex of victim, cross check with missing persons data, etc.).
  1. Building Materials – examine for possible manufacturer source and/or other common source, such as a specific retailer.
  1. Cigarettes – DNA analysis from filter end. Latent fingerprint recovery from all areas/surfaces of the product and its packaging.

NEVER use plastic when packaging potential DNA evidence. Plastic encourages the growth of bacteria which could deteriorate or destroy DNA.

  1. Coded Messages – examine for codes, ciphers, and other efforts at concealment. If needed, agencies can send these messages to a specific FBI email address for analysis. These messages go directly to FBI codebreakers.
  1. Ropes, Strings, and Other Cordage – examine for possible source matching.
  1. Shredded Paper – examine for latent prints. Possible reconstruction of documents.
  1. Tapes – examine for hairs and other fibers that may be attached to the “sticky side.” Check for and develop fingerprints. Match end-cuts or fractures with possible sources.

To print the stick side of tapes, use:

  1. Sticky-side powder
  2. Alternate black powder
  3. Ash gray powder
  4. Gentian violet
  1. Tools – examine for trace evidence (hairs, fibers, spoils, human tissue and fluids, etc.), latent prints, transferred paint and other building material for possible source-matching.
  1. Weapons – examine for blowback material (flesh, blood, brain matter, etc.), fingerprints, trace evidence, serial numbers, ammunition type and comparisons, tool marks, gunshot residue, marks (nicks, scratches, dents, etc.), comparison to broken fragments (broken knife blades), etc.

 

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OMG! Death of Person Shot By Cops Ruled a HOMICIDE!

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Yeah, well, don’t let those click-bait headlines get your unmentionables all bunched up, because ALL, and I repeat, ALL killings of human beings by other humans are homicides. And certain homicides are absolutely legal.

That’s right, L.E.G.A.L., legal.

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Yes, each time prison officials pull the switch, inject “the stuff,” or whatever means they use to execute a condemned prisoner, they commit homicide. People who kill attackers while saving a loved one from harm have committed homicide. And cops who kill while defending their lives or the lives of others have committed homicide. These instances are not a crime.

It’s when a death is caused illegally—murder or manslaughter—that makes it a criminal offense.

Murder is an illegal homicide.

For example, in Virginia:

§ 18.2-32. First and second degree murder defined; punishment.

Murder, other than capital murder, by poison, lying in wait, imprisonment, starving, or by any willful, deliberate, and premeditated killing, or in the commission of, or attempt to commit, arson, rape, forcible sodomy, inanimate or animate object sexual penetration, robbery, burglary or abduction, except as provided in § 18.2-31, is murder of the first degree, punishable as a Class 2 felony.

All murder other than capital murder and murder in the first degree is murder of the second degree and is punishable by confinement in a state correctional facility for not less than five nor more than forty years.

Therefore, those seemingly dramatic headlines that read “Shooting By Cop Ruled a Homicide,” well, they’re often nothing more than words used to affect people’s emotions, induce a reaction, or to encourage people to click over to their website, which, by the way, is how many so-called news outlets pay the bills.

So please, un-wad those unmentionables and don’t be a victim of media sensationalism.

By the way, how many of you clicked over to this blog because of the headline/blog-post title? Gotcha…

 

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Effects of Hanging and Strangulation

 

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Hangings have been a staple in mysteries for as long as we can remember. The Wild West featured them at high noon. Even the United States government used them as a means of execution, the last being a fellow from the state of Delaware named Bill Bailey, which finally answers the never-ending question from that song. He’s not coming home, so feel free to stop singing.

Most writers who attempt to pen death by rope or other “twisted” cord have never seen a victim of strangulation, or hanging (sometimes they’re the same). And that, of course, makes the task a little more difficult, relying on books, TV, film, and the word of experts. So before we look at an actual photo straight from the morgue (I snapped the image), let’s take a moment to discuss why something as small as a shoelace has the ability to end a human life.

The neck, although looking pretty sturdy perched on a set of nicely toned shoulders, is actually quite vulnerable to life-threatening injury.After all, there’s a lot of important stuff packed into a fairly small space—spinal cord, airway, and major blood vessels. And there’s not a lot of protection surrounding those vital body parts. There’s no bony encasement, such as our ribs, that circle around the interior of the neck. Nope, it’s basically just a little muscle and skin that separates the spinal cord, airway, and major blood vessels from harm.

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Did you know that hanging is actually a form of strangulation? Well, sometimes hangings may include some spinal cord or bone injury, but basically the death is by strangulation.

Hangings are either complete—the entire weight of the body is suspended by the neck, or incomplete—a portion of the body is touching the ground/floor.

A judicial hanging (execution) is normally a death by internal decapitation, where the weight of the body combined with the fall causes the neck to break, separating the head from the body (a separation at C2 is the classic hangman fracture). No, I’m not talking about someone’s head popping off like a champagne cork. Instead, the separation is entirely internal. The head stays with the body, connected by muscle and skin.

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Rarely, as I’ve often read in novels, does a complete, external decapitation occur. However, it is possible to see an external decapitation (the head completely separates from the body—two individual pieces) in cases where the drop is much further than the length of the victim’s body. For example, the victim is 6′ tall and is dropped from a height of 30 feet, or more, before the rope tightens, well…POP!

The muscles of the neck, such as the sternocleidomastoid muscle, remain intact during an incomplete decapitation.

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Strangulation by ligature, tool, or mechanism is a little different, however. Death caused by those methods are normally caused by obstruction of blood flow to the brain, which causes loss of consciousness followed by a loss of muscle tone and finally arterial and airway obstruction. Naturally, other things occur during the time of strangulation, but those are probably of the most concern for writers.

However, pressure applied to the neck for mere moments doesn’t always cause death. Martial arts “strangle holds” often involve a compression of the major neck arteries, causing a temporary unconsciousness. The trachea (windpipe) is not compromised during the application of these techniques. This technique is the “chokehold” once taught to police officers. Again, the airway is in no way affected when the technique is properly applied. The person to whom the hold is applied is able to breathe easily at all times. It is the restricted blood flow to the brain that causes unconsciousness.

The below post-autopsy photo shows a deep ligature mark on the neck (upper left). Note the stitching of the “Y” incision, post autopsy.

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The murder weapon used to kill the victim above was an extension cord, the type typically found in many homes.

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