Archive for the ‘Death Investigation’ Category
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.
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.
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.
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.
The murder weapon used to kill the victim above was an extension cord, the type typically found in many homes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
*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.