Archive for the ‘Death Investigation’ Category

PostHeaderIcon 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.

 

PostHeaderIcon 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…

 

PostHeaderIcon 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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PostHeaderIcon A Pictorial Visit To The Morgue (Warning – Graphic Images!)

Death investigations are conducted by both police investigators and medical examiners or coroners. Each city, county, and/or state determines whether or not to utilize a coroner or medical examiner system.

A coroner is an elected official and may or may not be a medical doctor. In fact, even the ticket-taker at the local Bijou Theater could be elected as coroner in some places, as long as he/she meets the local requirements. In some locations the requirements are minimal, such as being a citizen of the area for a year, and being of legal voting age with a non-violent criminal history.

In some counties, in California for example, the county sheriff also serves as coroner.

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Elected corners with no medical background employ pathologists to conduct autopsies.

A medical examiner is a medical doctor who has been hired by a city or county to conduct autopsies and investigate the cause(s) of suspicious deaths.

The police are in charge of all murder scenes, but medical examiners and coroners are in charge of the body. Medical examiners and coroners do not interrogate suspects and detectives do not examine bodies.

Bodies are placed in sealed body bags and delivered to the morgue in specially equipped vehicles.

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Upon arrival at the morgue, bodies are placed on gurneys and rolled onto scales where they’re weighed.

After weighing, the body is placed inside a cold room until autopsy. Black or dark gray, leak-resistant body bags are used pre-autopsy. The paper bag resting on the body of the murder victim at the top of the photo below contains the victim’s personal belongings.

*Some morgues still utilize the “drawer system” for body storage.

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Autopsy station

Former Butler County, Ohio coroner, Dr. Richard Burkhardt, M.D., at autopsy station. Sadly, my good friend, “Dr. B.”, passed away a few years ago.

Carts containing the necessary tools of the trade are wheeled next to the autopsy station within easy reach for the pathologists.

Bone saw, above, for removing the top of the skull, and sometimes to make the rib cuts for access to internal organs.

As organs are removed they’re placed on hanging scales for weighing.

“If a medical examiner were allowed to do only one thing during an autopsy, that one thing should be to weigh the heart of the victim. The weight of a heart is key to most of death’s mysteries.” Dr. Richard Burkhardt, Butler County Ohio Corner. (Excerpt from Police Procedure and Investigation by Lee Lofland)

Once the autopsy is complete, an assistant begins the process of closing. Pictured above, an attendant replaces the top of the skull and then stitches the scalp back in place.

Pathologists make a “Y” incision, starting at each shoulder, meeting at the bottom of the sternum (the xiphoid process is the cartilaginous/bony tip at the base of the sternum), continuing to the pubic bone, typically bypassing the navel.

Body – post autopsy.

Samples of organs are often kept for future examination, and/or DNA testing.

Cold rooms also store amputated body parts. The gray trays on the right contain severed limbs. White, paper-like body bags, like the one lying on the gurney in the rear of the cold room above, are used post-autopsy for bodies waiting to be transported to funeral homes.

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*Attendees of the first Writers’ Police Academy were treated to a behind the scenes tour of the morgue featured above. Hmm…only writers would consider a trip to the morgue as a treat.

PostHeaderIcon How To Properly Rot Your Corpses: Postmortem Decomposition

Putrefaction is the destruction of the soft tissue caused by two things, bacteria and enzymes.

As bacteria and enzymes do their jobs, the body immediately begins to discolor and transform into liquids and gases. The odd thing about the bacteria that destroys the tissue at death is that much of it has been living in the respiratory and intestinal tracts all along. Of course, if the deceased had contracted a bacterial infection prior to death, bacteria, such as septicemia (blood poisoning), would aid in increasing the rate of decomposition.

Temperature also plays an important part in decomposition. 70 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit is the optimal range for bacteria and enzymes to do what they do best, while lower temperatures slow the process. Therefore, and obviously, a body will decompose faster during the sweltering days of summertime.

A blood-filled circulatory system acts as a super-highway for those organisms that destroy the body after death. Without blood the process of putrefaction is slowed.

Therefore, a murder victim whose body bled out will decompose at a slower rate than someone who died of natural causes.

People who were overweight at the time of their deaths decompose faster than skinny people. People who suffered from excessive fluid build up decompose faster than those who were dehydrated. And people with massive infections and congestive heart failure will also decompose at a more rapid rate than those without those conditions.

Bodies adorned in thick, heavy clothing (the material retains heat) decompose more rapidly than the norm. Electric blankets also speed up decomposition.

A body that’s buried in warm soil may decompose faster than one that’s buried during the dead of winter.

The type of soil that surrounds the body also has an effect on the rate of decomposition. For example, the soil in North Carolina is normally a reddish type of clay. The density of that clay can greatly retard the decomposition process because it reduces the circulation of air that’s found in a less dense, more sandy-type of earth.

Adult bodies buried in a well drained soil will become skeletonized in approximately 10 years. A child’s body in about five years.

The rule of thumb for the decomposition of a body is, (if at the same temperature) 8 weeks in well-drained soil equals two weeks in the water, or one week exposed to the air.

Now, hold on to your breakfast…

The first sign of decomposition under average conditions is a greenish discoloration of the skin at the abdomen. This is apparent at 36-72 hours.

Next – Small vessels in the skin become visible (marbling).

Marbling is followed by glistening skin, skin slippage, purplish skin, blisters, distended abdomen (after one week—caused by gases), blood-stained fluid oozing from body openings (nose, mouth, etc.), swelling of tissue and the presence of foul gaseous odor, greenish-purple face, swollen eyelids and pouting lips, swollen face, protruding tongue, hair pulls out easily, fingernails come off easily, skin from hands pulls off (gloving), body swells and appears greatly obese.

Internally, the body is decomposing and breaking down. The heart has become flabby and soft. The liver has honeycombed, and the kidneys are like wet sponges. The brain is nearly liquid, and the lungs may be a bit brittle.

Hmm… Flabby hearts and liquid brains. Sounds like the internal workings of quite a few living and currently-working (well, they call it working) politicians in this country…

PostHeaderIcon Autopsy: From Crime Scene To Toe Tag

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Death investigations are conducted by both the police and medical examiners or coroners. The law in each jurisdiction determines whether or not the area utilizes a coroner or medical examiner.

A coroner is an elected official and may or may not be a medical doctor. (Many California sheriffs also serve as coroner).

A medical examiner is a medical doctor who has been hired/appointed by the city/county/state/federal government to conduct autopsies and investigate the cause of suspicious deaths. Elected coroners who are not doctors must hire a pathologist to conduct autopsies.

The police are in charge of all murder scenes, but medical examiners and coroners are in charge of the body. Medical examiners and coroners do not interrogate and/or arrest suspects. Detectives do not poke and prod the insides of human bodies.

Bodies are placed inside body bags and are generally delivered to the morgue in specially equipped vehicles (pictured above). However, in some areas bodies are transported by EMS, funeral homes, or body transport services.

Upon arrival at the morgue, the body (on a gurney) is rolled onto scales where it’s weighed.

After weighing, the body is placed inside a cold room until autopsy. Black or dark gray, leak-resistant body bags are used pre-autopsy.

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The paper bag resting on the body of the murder victim at the top of the above photo contains the victim’s personal belongings. Notice there are no individual drawers for bodies.

Cold rooms also store amputated body parts. The gray trays on the right contain severed limbs. White, paper-like body bags, like the one lying on the gurney in the rear of the cold room above, are used post-autopsy for bodies waiting to be transported to funeral homes.

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Our tour of the morgue continues with a peek into the autopsy room/suite, where we’ll examine some of the tools of the trade. If your stomach holds up we’ll even have a glimpse of the star of the show, a murder victim.

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The photograph above is of an autopsy station. Think of it as a pathologist’s workshop. To begin the autopsy, a body is placed on a gurney and is then positioned against the center, sink area of the station (feet-first in this morgue).

WARNING – GRAPHIC IMAGES BELOW!

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Pathologists in this particular morgue select instruments from a rolling cart placed at each workstation.

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Tools of the autopsy trade.

Some M.E.’s prefer to use a bone saw used for cutting through the rib cage beneath the “Y” incision. It’s also used for cutting through the skull.

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Bone saw

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Scales for weighing internal organs.

EXTREMELY GRAPHIC IMAGES BELOW!

Last Chance To Exit!!

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Bodies are positioned on a gurney prior to autopsy. Then they’re wheeled to the autopsy room/suite.

Notice the lividity on the back and sides (lividity is the gravity-induced purplish staining of the tissue at the lowest points of the body). The lividity presenting on the above victim indicates he was lying on his back after his heart stopped beating, and the body remained in that position until lividity became fixed (12 hours, or so). Had this victim been found on his stomach with the lividity fixed on his back, well, that would be a sign that the body had been moved sometime after death.

Next we see the upper chest and neck area of the murder victim. The reddish-brown line circling the neck is a ligature mark  caused by strangling with an electrical extension cord.

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Baseball-style stitches are used post autopsy to close the “Y” incision.

Once the internal exam of the head is complete, the scalp (behind the head, from ear to ear) is stitched back into place.

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Post-autopsy suturing of the scalp.

Finally, the body is cleaned and returned to the cold room to await pickup by a funeral home.

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The end. Really, it is…

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