Archive for the ‘Police Procedure’ Category
There’s nothing in this world like entering an abandoned house in mid July to begin working a murder case. If the stifling heat, humidity, and smell of decomposing human don’t get to you, well, the flies, maggots, and other creepy crawlers certainly will. But, it’s a job that falls into the lap of homicide cops—it’s what they do—and it’s a job that requires a special skill set. Not to mention a stomach made of cast iron and steel plating.
Actually, murder cases are like writing crime novels, only in reverse. Detectives begin their writing (initial report) with the twisted ending and then work backward to the first page, where all stories begin…with the name of the person who created the macabre tale. What follows is an extremely detailed and meticulous investigation of all the twists and turns and potential characters/suspects. No stone is left unturned, and no potential piece of evidence is left unexamined.
So let’s open the door to the house at the end of your street—the old Victorian that’s been empty for two years and is now surrounded by waist-high weeds. The once beautifully manicured lawn is now a graveyard for litter and other garbage left behind by transients and the kids who toss their empty fast food wrappers and plastic soda bottles over the rusted chain-link fence. The window panes are broken and many of the shingles have fallen off.
For months now you’d seen a homeless man going and coming, but you just realized that he hadn’t been around in the past two weeks, and there’s that strong odor. Like something is…dead.
So you call the police and the next thing you know your neighborhood is overrun by patrol cars and crime scene tape. You even heard one officer say something about murder.
Inside the murder house, detectives are doing what they do best. They’re checking all the boxes on their mental checklist. And now their focus is on the victim.
Prior to the removal of a body from the crime scene, homicide investigators should note (and photograph) the presence of each of the following in his/her report:
1) Livor/Lividity (color, location, blanchability, Tardieu spots, other coloring). Are these consistent or inconsistent with the current positioning of the body.
Remember, lividity is the pooling of blood/purplish staining of tissue at the lowest portions of a dead body, caused by gravity. Livor continues to form for up to 8 – 12 hours after death. This process can be slowed to as much as 36 hours in a cool environment, including a morgue cooler.
To test for blanchability, a death investigator uses a finger(s) to push against the flesh. The pressure forces blood out of the capillaries in that area, causing the flesh to present as much lighter in color. If the pressure does indeed cause a change in skin color, the flesh is blanchable. This tells the investigator the body is still within the lividity period, meaning the victim died sometime within the past 12 hours, or up to 36 hours in cool surroundings.
You can try this on your own skin. Use a finger to apply pressure to the back of your hand. Release the pressure after a second or two and you’ll see the change in skin color (obviously you’ll use the finger of one hand to press against the skin on the back of your other hand). By the way, if you needed that instruction then the warning to remove Pop Tarts from their wrapper before heating are probably very important to you. And, if there was no change in your skin color, well, I hope your life insurance policy is up to date.
Tardieu spots are dark, circular areas—capillary ruptures.
Muscles contain bundles of long, narrow cells. While we’re seated at our computers reading blogs and watching goofy videos, our muscles are, for the most part, at rest.
While resting, our muscles pump out calcium ions which build up electrical potential (energy). Then, when we’re ready to make that run to the mailbox to retrieve the latest royalty check, a nerve impulse causes those ions hook up with actin and myosin filaments and the muscles contract (become tighter). They remain in that state until adenosine triphosphate (ATP) binds to the myosin, and before you know it the muscles once again relax.
Got it now? No, well, don’t worry. All we need to know is that ATP has an obsession with oxygen. It absolutely has to have it to survive (you know, like Justin Bieber needs bodyguards to protect his scrawny, arrogant self from being slapped into a different universe).
Actually, the body needs oxygen to produce ATP. Therefore, when a person stops breathing (no oxygen) the body ceases to make adenosine triphosphate. Without ATP our muscles can no longer relax. And when the muscles can’t relax, what happens? Right, the body stiffens, and that, my writer friends, is called Rigor.
3) Degree of decomposition (putrefaction, adipocere, mummification, skeletonization, etc.). Everything affects decomposition, from air temperature to insects to shellfish and turtles (body in water). Even soil types and clothing can affect the rate of decomposition. Interestingly, newborns who have not yet been fed, decompose slowly since the body is basically sterile. However, an injury or being fed will cause a newborn’s body to decompose more rapidly.
a) Putrefaction – the final stage of decomposition. Presents as discoloration of tissue, disfiguration, liquefaction of tissue, bloating due to gases forming in the tissue and organs.
The general order of putrefactive changes are as follows:
First to go are the larynx and trachea, followed by…
- stomach, spleen, and intestines
- lungs and liver
- bladder, uterus, kidneys
- skin, tendons, and muscle
*The prostate resists putrefaction for a long time.
b) Adipocere – a waxy, soap-like substance that’s sometimes formed during decomposition. Normally caused by moist or damp conditions surrounding the decomposing body.
D. Insect and animal activity. Obviously, insects and animals can and do consume body parts. Animals may also scatter human remains, sometimes making the murder scene a bit more difficult to understand, at first look.
E. Scene temperature. Note the temperature at the location of the body, and the method used to obtain it.
F. Description of body temperature. Is it warm to the touch? Is the flesh cold, or frozen.
It is extremely important to preserve the security of the body. Remember, the body is more than likely THE most important piece of evidence in a murder case. Investigators should oversee the labeling, packaging, and the removal of the remains by the M.E’s personnel, or EMS, etc. An identification tag should be attached to the body to prevent any mix ups later, at the morgue (yes, this has happened, and on more than one occasion).
Finally… No, detectives do NOT use thermometers of any type, including rectal thermometers, to check the temperature of a dead body. It is not in their job description to do so. And, yes, I once read the rectal thermometer thing in a book. So, no, no, and NO!
By the way, the above image is of a grilled pork chop. Had your stomach turning for a moment, huh?
It’s four in the morning and fatigue is slowly gaining control of your eyelids. It’s a subtle move, like grasping the string on your grandmother’s window shades, slowly pulling them down. The Sandman’s gentle action is so gracefully executed that, well, you hardly notice it.
Thinking about your family asleep in their warm beds, you turn onto a side street and then into a narrow alleyway, trying to find a place to pull over. Five minutes. That’s all you need. Shouldn’t have spent those three hours today playing with the kids when you could’ve been sleeping. Still, that’s the only time you get to see them awake. And, someone had to mow the lawn this afternoon, right?
Oh yeah, tomorrow is the day you’re supposed to go to your third-grader’s class to tell them about police officers. How long could it take? One or two hours at the most, right? Well, there is the lunch afterward. Another hour. After all, you promised. Besides, it’s impossible to say no to those sweet brown eyes.
Sleep. You need sleep.
Your headlights wash over the back of the alley as feral dogs and cats scramble out of the dumpster that sits behind a bakery like an old and tired dinosaur waiting for extinction. The knot of animals scatter loaves of two-day-old bread in their haste to escape the human intruder who dared meddle with their nocturnal feeding. A speckled mutt with three legs hobbled behind a rusty air conditioning unit, dragging a long, dirty bag filled with crumbled bagels.
You move on, shining your spotlight at the rear doors of a five and dime, an auto parts store, a barber shop, and the real estate office you used when buying your house. Only twenty more years to financial freedom and the joy of seeing the first AARP invitation-to-join letter in the mail.
The night air is damp with fog, dew, and city sweat that reeks of gasoline and garbage. Tendrils of steam rise slowly from storm drains—ghostly, sinewy figures melting in the black sky. Mannequins stare into infinity from tombs of storefront glass, waiting for daylight to take away the flashing neon lights that reflect from their plaster skin.
Desperate to close your own eyes, just for a minute or two, you park at the rear of the next alley, alongside a stack of flattened cardboard boxes. Their labels reflect someone’s life for the week—chicken, baby food, lettuce, disposable diapers, cigarettes, and two-dollar wine.
Four more hours. If you can only make it for four more hours…
Suddenly, a voice spews from the speaker behind your head, “Shots fired. Respond to 1313 Mockingbird Lane. Back up is en route.”
“10-4. I’m 10-8.”
And so it goes. Night, after night, after night…
It’s believed by some that the graveyard shift (not this blog) got it name from people who accidentally buried their loved ones while they were still alive. Believing the “dearly departed” had gone on to their reward, these folks fitted an unconscious or comatose Uncle Bill or Grandma with a new outfit and a spiffy pine box. Then they buried them in the local cemetery where night workers claimed to hear the dead screaming for help from below the ground. When they dug up the coffins, they sometimes found scrape marks on the casket lids, indicating the person inside had tried to claw their way out before finally succumbing to a lack of oxygen.
To remedy the situation, caskets were fitted with a long string that reached from inside the buried coffin to a bell up on the surface. This enabled the “dead” person to ring the bell should he awaken after his burial. Workers could then quickly rescue the living dead.
It’s debatable as to the validity of this tale, but it makes for an interesting story, especially for police officers who have cemeteries to patrol in their precincts. This bell-ringing story may have also been the inspiration for early tales of zombie activity.