Have you ever read what you thought was a fantastic book, the kind that forces us to read into the wee hours of the morning, not wanting to stop because the writing is so doggone good? But then on page 1,617, well, there it is, the sentence that makes us scream like the shopper on Black Friday who lost the last 100-foot-flatscreen Kawasaki Supersonic television to the old lady with the great left jab who immediately zipped over to the checkout counter on her suped-up Hoveround with YOUR TV strapped to her back.

Yeah, you know those books. The stories written by the author who figured no one would notice that he didn’t know the difference between a revolver and a semi-automatic pistol. Or that cordite hasn’t been used in the manufacturing of ammunition since the last days of WWII. Yep, those books.

We’ve all heard (over and over and over again) about fake news, right? You’ve even heard me mention the nonsensical reporting so often seen floating around the internet. Well, the use of incorrect firearm and other forensic terminology and information has the same stink to it as does the news reporter who kneels down in a shallow puddle of water to make it seem as if he’s standing in raging floodwaters.

So let’s have a fresh start today and we’ll do so by clearing a bit of the stinky faux pas from our writing. We’ll begin the funk-cleansing by quashing a few details about blood evidence. First, up …

Some writers have their crime-solvers rush into a murder scene while soaking the area with a luminol-filled power washer. They spray and spray until every surface—walls, ceilings, and even the family dog and Ralph the goldfish are dripping with the glowing liquid.

Others, well, their detectives have the uncanny ability to merely look at blood droplets and immediately know its type and what the bleeder had for dinner and the exact time the red stuff spattered the family portrait hanging above the mantle.

You put your left eye up, you put your left eye down.

You put ’em both together and then you look all around.

That’s what it’s all about!

~ Sung to the tune of The Hokey Pokey.

So, as the peppy little jingle above indicates, investigators should always examine a scene visually before taking the first step inside. This includes looking up. See if there are bloodstains there. Any brain matter? Bullet holes? Insects?

Next, the walls and for the same items of evidence and/or clues.

The floor and the body, if that’s where it was found. Of course, the victim should be the first concern. After all, he or she just might still be alive and need prompt medical attention. Oh, and a quick check for the suspect is always a good idea. No need to take a bullet or stab wound in the back if not absolutely necessary. Priorities!

Then look all around, and do examine the smallest of details. Evidence, as any seasoned investigator will tell you, is sometimes found in the most unlikeliest of all places.

Crime-scene searches must be methodical and quite thorough. Every single surface, nook, and cranny must be examined for evidence, including doors, light switches, thermostats, door knobs, etc.

For example, removing the plastic light switch or receptacle covers reveals an ideal hiding spot for small evidence.

First responders can be a homicide detective’s worst nightmare!

Was evidence disturbed or altered when first responders arrived at the scene? Did they open or close windows and doors? Did they walk through blood or other body fluids?

Investigators must determine if the body has been moved by the suspect. Are there drag marks? Smeared body fluids? Transfer prints? Is there any blood in other areas of the scene? Is fixed lividity on the wrong side of the body, indicating that it had been moved after death

Does the victim exhibit signs of a struggle? Are there defensive wounds present on the palms of the hands and forearms?

Okay, back to the blood found at the scene. Your detective has detected a bright red and wet substance spattered across a bedroom wall. The victim ju jour is spread eagle on the floor beneath, obviously dead due to a large gap between the eyes. Therefore, the reasonable assumption is that the material dotted and smeared across the wall is indeed blood. But this must be verified.

The procedure for identifying the red, wet substance is not like we see on television.

Officers do not dig through their crime scene kit to pull out a UV light, shine it on the red drops and drips and then turn toward the camera to say, “It’s blood. Type O. She consumed orange juice and a ham sandwich three hours before a left-handed shooter, probably the waiter at the Golden Horseshoe Lounge, popped a cap into her oval-shaped head. I know this, TV viewers, because I magically saw the DNA and it’s a match for all of the above. I’ll be available for autographs later tonight in the lobby of Bucky Bee’s Motor Lodge out on Route 66.”

For starters, unlike saliva and semen, blood doesn’t fluoresce under UV light. Instead, the appropriate light source for viewing (and photographing) blood evidence is an infrared light source. Infrared light is at the wavelength between visible light and microwave radiation. It is invisible to the naked eye.

To avoid altering, contaminating, or destroying blood’s usefulness as evidence, a savvy detective must first determine the reddish-brown substance is blood and not spilled, leftover pasta sauce. To do so, investigators conduct a simple presumptive test such as the Leuco-Malachite DISCHAPS test. This is a field test kit that contains chemical filled ampoules that, when exposed to the evidence, displays an intense blue/green color reaction in 3 seconds if blood is present.

Remember, swab a small sample for testing. Do NOT destroy the entire piece of evidence by exposing it to the testing material. Test only the swab!!

Now that your protagonist has determined that blood is present, the next step is to photograph the evidence/area where blood was found.

Luminol, the chemical used to detect blood at crime scenes, reacts with the iron in hemoglobin. It emit a blue glow that can then be photographed as evidence. It’s helpful with locating the presence of blood even after the place has been thoroughly cleaned. However, it has its limitations because the chemical dilutes blood to the point where DNA is destroyed.

The use of various filters on infrared cameras helps to reveal evidence that can only be seen with specific areas of the infrared spectrum. For example, when capturing images of blood, filters coated with a protein that is found in both egg whites and blood plasma—albumin—are often used.

Other filters are available to detect drugs, fingerprints, and explosives.

Bone fragments and teeth are visible using both UV and blue light. Crack cocaine also fluoresces under blue light.

Those of you who attended the fabulous presentation by Sirchie at the 2018 Writers’ Police academy saw the use of these demonstrated in real time.

To recap in simpler terms:

  • Examine the crime scene visually before entering.
  • Visually inspect the areas above, below, and around so as to not miss evidence that may otherwise go undetected. Looks in odd places!
  • Conduct your search in a methodical manner. Be patient.
  • Identify possible bloodstains
  • Use presumptive test kits to determine if stains are indeed blood and if they’re from a human.
  • Do NOT destroy am entire stain during testing. Use a swab to capture a small sample and then test the swab, NOT the entire stain.
  • Make certain to preserve portions of the blood sample for other testing—DNA, etc.
  • Use proper light sources for locating and photographing blood.
  • Blood does not fluoresce under UV light.
  • The appropriate light source for viewing (and photographing) blood evidence is an infrared light source.
  • Filters coated with albumin are used for photographing blood. Other filters are also available.
  • Sirchie is the Global Leader in Crime Scene Investigation and Forensic Science Solutions; providing quality Products, Vehicles, and Training to the global law enforcement and forensic science communities.

*Remember the name “Sirchie” because you’ll soon be hearing more about them. Very, very soon. The news is exciting!

 

 

I think it’s fairly safe to say that no one writer has enjoyed a good poison more than the “Queen of Crime,” Agatha Christie. In fact, Dame Agatha Mary Clarissa Christie knew so little about guns and ballistics that she maintained the use of toxins as a primary mode of murder throughout her career as an author.

Christie once worked as an apothecary’s assistant and, to continue in the role, she had to pass required examinations. To assist her, co-workers tutored her in chemistry and pharmacy. In addition, she received private tuition from a commercial pharmacist who later made an appearance as the pharmacist in her tale The Pale Horse.

Her knowledge of apothecary was so detailed that it once received a glowing review—“This novel has the rare merit of being correctly written”—in the Pharmaceutical Journal and Pharmacist.

Yes, she wrote what she knew, yet, if she came across a topic of which she was unsure she didn’t hesitate to seek help, such as the time she contacted a specialist to inquire about about putting thalidomide in birthday-cake icing (How much should the killer use? How long before the effects of the poison would begin to show?).

Christie was definitely good at what she did and she was a pro at weaving fact into fiction without making it seem like we were reading the factual stuff straight from a textbook like we often see today in some books.

I like to point to Jeffery Deaver as a modern day example of a true pro who knows his stuff and who knows how to cleverly interject very real facts into a tale.

With each book, Deaver enters into a grueling research period, examining every minute detail, and he conducts this research sometimes for months on end before he sets the first word to paper. But when he does, the result is a true masterpiece of believable make-believe. In fact, something, a bit of factual information I found in his book Roadside Crosses was the starting point for a section in my book on police procedure.

A character in Roadside Crosses mentioned using a write blocker when examining a computer hard drive, one that had been submerged in a body of water. Well, at the time I was planning the section on computer crimes and what I seen in Jeff’s book was the catalyst that prompted a portion of that particular section.

By the way, a write blocker is used by forensic investigators when they need to have a look inside a suspect’s computer. The device allows data to travel only from the suspect device to the computer copying the information, not the other way around. The analogy I used in my book was to equate the write blocker with a foot valve inside a well. The valve allows water to flow into a home but doesn’t permit it to run back into the well.

Back enough dilly-dallying, let’s return to Christie and her use of poisons, and she used several, such as strychnine (The Mysterious Affair at Styles), thallium (The Pale Horse), digitalis, cyanide (Sparkling Cyanide). She also used coniine (Five Little Pigs), which I find interesting because it’s an alkaloid extracted from hemlock. Spooky, huh?

However, today I’d like to delve a bit into Dame Christie’s use of arsenic since the toxin is one so many writers seem to gravitate toward. I know I see and hear and receive numerous written inquiries about it’s use. Sure, I know people often use me to get to Denene, my microbiologist/scientist wife who’s an expert on bioterrorism, but, as the Lynyrd Skynyrd song goes, “I Know a Little.”

“Say I know a little
I know a little about it
I know a little
I know a little about it
I know a little about love poison
And baby I you can guess the rest”

My knowledge of arsenic as it relates to the crime world is twofold—its use to kill, and the presumptive test to see if arsenic or other heavy metals are indeed present in someone’s system, the alert that further testing is required to determine the toxin that caused a victim’s demise. It’s the latter, the presumptive test that I’m sharing with you today, and here it is in a very brief and tiny and, hopefully, understandable nutshell.

The Reinsch Test

The Reinsch Test uses a strong acid, and copper, to identify the presence of arsenic, antimony, bismuth, and mercury. The metallic copper, when in the presence of concentrated hydrochloric acid, reduces arsenic (also antimony, bismuth and mercury) to its elemental form. If arsenic is present when the copper is introduced to the acid, it adheres to the copper as a visible but dull black film.

The Process

  1. First, obtain specimens for testing. Urine, gastric contents, or liver samples are the preferred specimens.
  2. Using a copper spiral of#20 gauge, or a foil copper strip, the technician/scientist, carefully winds the copper around a glass rod or a pencil. Next, the copper is cleaned by immersing it in concentrated nitric acid for a few seconds. The tech then immediately removes it and dunks the cleaned copper into a container of water. If the cleaning process was successful, and it should be, the copper will now appear as bright and shiny as a brand new penny.
  3. An arsenic reference solution must then be prepared by dissolving predetermined amounts of arsenic trioxide and sodium hydroxide. Then dH2O (distilled water) is added to the mix. The solution is neutralized with concentrated HCl (hydrochloric acid) and more dH2O.
  4. Place clean copper spirals (the ones coiled by wrapping around the pencil) into separate beakers or flasks.
  5. Place 20 mL urine, approximately 10-15 g minced tissue in 20 mL dH2O, or a specific amount gastric contents dissolved in 20 mL dH2O into a labeled beaker. By specific, I mean a number that evenly divides another number. Precisely speaking, this number/amount is an “aliquot” of gastric contents. An aliquot is a number that evenly divides another number, such as the number 5 is to the number 20.

I first heard this term, aliquot, back during the time when I was in a breathalyzer certification course. It appeared again when I was observing an autopsy performed by Dr. Marcella Farinelli Fierro, Chief Medical Examiner of Virginia, who was the inspiration for Patricia Cornwell’s books and for her protagonist Dr. Kay Scarpetta. The term has been embedded in my mind for forty years, give or take.

Okay, I’m rambling again. Back to the procedure.

6.  Place 20 mL negative control urine in two separate beakers. Add 40 μL of 1 mg/mL of the premixed arsenic reference solution (from step 3 above).

7.  Slowly and gently add 4 mL concentrated HCl to each beaker.

8.  To avoid breathing or contacting the vapors, under a hood, heat the solutions to a gentle boil for approximately one hour. Then add 10% HCl as necessary to maintain the original volume. Do not allow the solution to dip below the original level.

9.  After one hour, remove the copper coils and rinse with distilled water. If the copper coils in the unknown samples become gray, black, or silvery, then the result is a presumptive positive for the presence of heavy metal.

10.  BINGO! You’ve now confirmed your suspicions. The victim was indeed poisoned. However, you’re still not sure of which heavy metal is the culprit, unless, of course, you found the victim’s wife holding a half-empty box of rat poison while standing over her deceased husband.

The next step would be to send a sample to a qualified laboratory where it would then undergo further testing to determine which heavy metal was used to kill the victim du jour.

11.  Tie up loose ends and then issue a warrant for the killer.

12.  Arrest the suspect.

13.  Go home, crank up the volume on track four of Skynard’s Street Survivor disc (I Know a Little), and settle in to read Roadside Crosses.

14. Take a break from reading to ponder the Georgians and Victorians who many believed were killed simply because they were particularly fond of the colors red and green—two colors whose components in those days were made of arsenic compounds. Therefore, many common items were thought to have become instruments of death, including clothing and kids toys.

For many years people believed a very real danger of arsenic poising was due to the common, ordinary wallpaper used in those days. Why? Again, due to the extreme popularity of red and green colorings. To stick the paper to walls and other surfaces, homebuilders back then used a paste of flour and water, and when the paste later became moist, such as in humid and/or damp climates, became an ideal breeding habitat for mold. And, in this macabre chain of perhaps fictional circumstances, some molds transformed the arsenic into a gas called trimethylarsine. This stuff then was released arsenic from the paper which was then inhaled by humans who occupied the space.

However, even though arsenic was used in the wallpaper colorings, some scientists today do not believe that arsenic was to blame for those untimely deaths. In fact, it’s been stated that the illnesses that caused many of those deaths were simply misunderstood and misdiagnosed illnesses—arsenophobia that ran wild in 19th century Europe—merely because something in the house smelled odd at the time someone died of unknown causes.

 

While we’re alive our body temperatures are determined by metabolism. It’s a different ballgame, though, once the bucket is kicked.

After death, the body’s core temperature remains fairly constant for a couple of hours. Then it begins to cool by radiation, conduction, and convection, at a rate of 1.5 degrees per hour, until it reaches the ambient temperature—20-30 hours later.

6

However, investigators shouldn’t use the body temperature as the sole means of determining when a victim died. There are factors that could, and do, alter the natural cooling process.

When the “moment” arrives and the victim succumbs to wounds, illness, or natural death, there are elements that may affect the cooling rate of the body, such as:

  • Ventilation: A room that’s well-ventilated could actually speed up the rate of cooling by increasing the rate of evaporation.
  • Humidity: A body in a humid location cools at a slower rate than one in a hot, dry climate.
  • Insulation: A body that’s wrapped in something (including excess body fat) cools slower than one that’s left out in the open.
  • Surface temperature: A body lying on a hot surface will cool at a slower rate than one that’s found lying on a cold surface.

And, of course, a body in a hot environment cools much slower than one found lying in a in the snow, or a vat of ice cubes.

There are also factors that come into play that could alter the body temps even before death occurs, such as:

  • Consumption of drugs, extreme physical activity, and fever could all increase the body temperature.
  • Hypothermia could lower the body temperature.

These factors would change the length of time it takes a body to reach the surrounding air temperature.

10.4 Toe Tag

Finally, the rate of cooling also affects other “after death” processes, such as rigor mortis—heat speeds up rigor and cold slows it down.

By the way, other factors may also speed up rigor, such as extremely violent exertion prior to death, and alkaloid poisoning. Factors that could slow the rigor process are hemorrhaging by exsanguination, and arsenic poisoning, to name a couple.

And … a handy rule of thumb for decomposition:

One week in air = two weeks in water = eight weeks under ground.

Shots fired from close range leave tell-tale marks called stippling, or tattooing. Evidence of contact with hot gunpowder can be seen just above and to the sides of the “V” opening of the shirt (the blackened area) in the photograph below.

The person who wore this shirt was the victim of a shooting at close range—less than a foot away—with a 9mm pistol. Notice there’s no hole in the back of the shirt. No hole, no exit wound. The bullet remained lodged inside the body, even from a shot at this short distance.

The next photograph (post autopsy) – *WARNING. REAL GUNSHOT WOUND – GRAPHIC *– is of the victim’s wound (received in the upper image).

The wound is round and neat and it’s approximately the diameter of an ink pen. It’s not like the ones we see on television where half the guy’s body is blown into oblivion, or beyond, by a couple of bullets from a hero’s gun.

Sometimes exit wounds are nearly, or as small as the entrance wound. The amount of damage and path of travel depends on the type ammunition used and what the bullet struck as it makes it way through the body. They do not display signs associated with entrance wounds—imprint of the muzzle, stippling, or blackening of the skin edges.

I’ve witnessed officers who easily mistook exit wounds for entrance wounds, at first glance. A close examination reveals stark differences. Exit wounds normally present pieces of avulsed flesh angled slightly away from the wound. Typically, there’s also no trace of gunshot residue around the outside of the wound.

Again, the image below is graphic!

In the picture below, the hot bullet entered the flesh leaving a gray-black ring around the wound. The tiny black dots are the stippling, or tattooing.

Close contact gunshot wound to the chest.

The impact of the bullet and gases striking the tissue also left a distinct bruising (ecchymosis) around the wound. Notice the stitching of the “Y” incision.

Contact wounds caused by the barrel of a gun touching the skin when the weapon is fired may present the imprint of the muzzle. The wounds sometimes show an abrasion ring (a dark circle around the wound) that’s caused as the hot gases from the weapon enters the flesh. The force of the gas blows the skin and tissue back against the gun’s muzzle, leaving the circular imprint.

Contact wounds occur when the muzzle is pressed against the skin when the weapon is fired

  • In areas of “loose” skin, such as the abdomen or even the chest area, wounds likely present as circular with blackened, seared skin surrounding the wound opening.
  • On the head, entry wounds often appear as round punctures, again with blackened, seared skin surrounding the wound opening.

Near-contact wounds are caused when the muzzle of the gun is held a short distance from the skin. These wounds generally present as circular with blackened and seared edges. However, the searing and blackening cover a wider space than seen with contact wounds

Stippling

  • Stippling is due to burned and unburned powder grains exiting from the firearm causing pinpoint, blackened abrasions on the skin.

Entrance and Exit Wounds in Bone

Entrance wounds in flat bones such as the skull are often round and show internal beveling in the direction of the bullet’s path. The shape and nature is quite similar to that of a cone.

Exit wounds in bone are most likely more irregular in shape than entry wounds and may show external beveling (a reverse cone), the opposite effect of the entrance wound.

 

The first hours of a murder investigation are crucial to solving the crime. I say this because  as time passes memories fade, evidence can become lost or destroyed, people have the opportunity to develop excuses, stories, and alibis, and the bad guys have the time to escape arrest.

Here’s a handy list to keep on hand that could help solve the cases investigated by the detectives in your stories. Keep in mind that time is of the utmost importance! So, in no real order, off we go …

Serving a search warrant. Knock, knock!

Investigators start the search at the scene and then extend the search area as needed.

Police Public Information Officers (PIO) are the direct line of communication between departments and the public.

It’s important to keep the bosses informed. They do not like to be blindsided with questions they can’t answer.

And then it’s time for …

*Remember, no list is all inclusive since no two crimes are exactly the same. And, no two detectives operate in the exact same manner.

 

 

 

Prisoners are constantly scheming and devising ways to beat the system, and death row inmates in South Carolina found a way to essentially put the brakes on executions. How’s that for ingenuity?

Officials in South Carolina, bless their hearts, believed condemned killers should have the option as to how they’d die—lethal injection or electric chair. Well, it goes without saying that given the choice of being fried like a chicken for a Sunday dinner or to lie down on a padded gurney where a medical person injects enough drugs to initiate a very long nap in the great beyond, the folks residing on death row picked the injection over the suped-up jumper-cable-powered chair. A no-brainer.

No Access to Drugs

Unfortunately for the state but a stroke of good fortune for the prisoners, in 2011, South Carolina was permanently denied access to the drugs to perform lethal injections. Therefore, by opting for lethal injection, a process inmates knew could not be carried out, those prisoners prolonged their lives for eternity. They were condemned to die but the state had no means to make it happen. Until …

State officials recently held a vote to eliminate lethal injection as an option for execution, making the use of the electric chair mandatory. The results of the vote … Yes=26. No=12. The proposal now goes to the House where it expected to pass easily, meaning it will soon be time to fire up Old Sparky. The prisoners will no longer have a choice. They will be electrocuted until dead.

South Carolina is one of only nine states that allow electrocutions. A couple of states have ruled the use of the electric chair is unconstitutionally cruel. I’ve witnessed an execution by electrocution. It’s not pretty, but it works.

Execution: It was April 27, 1994 at 11:13 pm. when I looked into the eyes of a serial killer and then watched him die.

Timothy Wilson Spencer began his deadly crime spree in 1984, when he raped and killed a woman named Carol Hamm in Arlington, Virginia. Spencer also killed Dr. Susan Hellams, Debby Davis, and Diane Cho, all of Richmond, Virginia. A month later, Spencer returned to Arlington to rape and murder Susan Tucker.

spencer.jpg

Timothy W. Spencer, The Southside Strangler

Other women in the area were killed by someone who committed those murders in a very similar manner. Was there a copycat killer who was never caught? Or, did Spencer kill those women too? We’ll probably never learn the truth.

Spencer was, however, later tried, convicted, and sentenced to die for the aforementioned murders. I requested to serve as a witness to his execution. I figured if I had the power to arrest and charge someone with capital murder, then I needed to see a death penalty case through to the end.

On the evening of Spencer’s execution, corrections officials met me at a state police area headquarters. I left my unmarked Chevrolet Caprice there and they drove me to the prison. We passed through the sally port and then through a couple of interior gates, stopping outside the building where death row inmates await their turn to die.

Once inside, I was led to a room where other witnesses waited for a briefing about what to expect. Then we, in single file, were led to where we’d soon watch a condemned man be put to death.

The room where I and other witnesses sat waiting was inside the death house at Virginia’s Greensville Correctional Center. At the time, the execution chamber was pretty much a bare room, with the exception of Old Sparky, the state’s electric chair, an instrument of death that, ironically, was built by prison inmates.

Old Sparky, Virginia’s electric chair, was built by inmates.

State executions in Virginia are carried out at Greensville Correctional Center.

The atmosphere that night was nothing short of surreal. No one spoke. No one coughed. Nothing. Not a sound as we waited for the door at the rear of “the chamber” to open. After an eternity passed, it did. A couple of prison officials entered first, and then Spencer walked into the chamber surrounded by members of the prison’s death squad (specially trained corrections officers).

I later learned that Spencer had walked the eight short steps to the chamber from a death watch cell, and he’d done so on his own without assistance from members of the squad. Sometimes the squad is forced to physically deliver the condemned prisoner to the execution chamber. I cannot fathom what sort mindset it takes to make that short and very final walk. Spencer seemed prepared for what was to come, and he’d made his peace with it.

Spencer was shorter and a bit more wiry than most people picture when thinking of a brutal serial killer. His head was shaved and one pant leg of his prison blues was cut short for easy access for attaching one of the connections (the negative post, I surmised). His skin was smooth and was the color of milk chocolate. Dots of perspiration were scattered across his forehead and bare scalp.

Spencer scanned the brightly lit room, looking from side to side, taking in the faces of the witnesses. I wondered if the blonde woman beside me reminded him of either of his victims. Perhaps, the lady in the back row who sat glaring at the condemned killer was the mother of one of the women Spencer had so brutally raped and murdered.

After glancing around the brightly lit surroundings, Spencer took a seat in the oak chair and calmly allowed the death squad to carry out their business of fastening straps, belts, and electrodes. His arms and legs were securely fixed to the chair. He looked on, seemingly uninterested in what they were doing, as if he’d just settled in to watch TV, or a movie.

I sat directly in front of the cold-blooded killer, mere feet away, separated only by a partial wall of glass. His gaze met mine and that’s where his focus remained for the next minute or so. His face was expressionless. No sign of sadness, regret, or fear.

The squad’s final task was to place a metal, colander-like hat on Spencer’s head. The cap was lined with a brine-soaked sponge that serves as an excellent conductor of electricity.

I wondered if Spencer felt the presence of the former killers who’d died in the chair before him—Morris Mason, Michael Smith, Ricky Boggs, Alton Wayne, Albert Clozza, Derrick Peterson, Willie Jones, Wilbert Evans, Charles Stamper, and Roger Coleman, to name a few.

Morris Mason had raped his 71-year-old neighbor. Then he’d hit her in the head with an ax, nailed her to a chair, set her house on fire, and then left her to die.

Alton Wayne stabbed an elderly woman with a butcher knife, bit her repeatedly, and then dragged her nude body to a bathtub where he doused it with bleach.

A prison chaplain once described Wilbert Evans’ execution as brutal. “Blood was pouring down onto his shirt and his body was making the sound of a pressure cooker ready to blow.” The preacher had also said, “I detest what goes on here.”

I wondered if Spencer felt any of those vibes coming from the chair. And I wondered if he’d heard that his muscles would contract, causing his body to lunge forward. That the heat would literally make his blood boil. That the electrode contact points were going to burn his skin. Did he know that his joints were going to fuse, leaving him in a sitting position? Had anyone told him that later someone would have to use sandbags to straighten out his body? Had he wondered why they’d replaced the metal buttons buttons on his clothes with Velcro? Did they tell him that the buttons would have melted?

For the previous twenty-four hours, Spencer had seen the flurry of activity inside the death house. He’d heard the death squad practicing and testing the chair. He’d seen them rehearsing their take-down techniques in case he decided to resist while they escorted him to the chamber. He watched them swing their batons at a make-believe prisoner. He saw their glances and he heard their mutterings.

Was he thinking about what he’d done?

I wanted to ask him if he was sorry for what he’d done. I wanted to know why he’d killed those women. What drove him to take human lives so callously?

The warden asked Spencer if he cared to say any final words—a time when many condemned murderers ask for forgiveness and offer an apology to family members of the people they’d murdered. Spencer opened his mouth to say something, but stopped, offering no apology and showing no remorse. Whatever he’d been about to say, well, he took it with him to his grave.

He made eye contact with me again. And believe me, this time it was a chilling experience to look into the eyes of a serial killer just mere seconds before he himself was killed. All the way to the end, he kept his gaze on me.

In those remaining seconds everyone’s thoughts were on the red telephone hanging on the wall at the rear of the chamber—the direct line to the governor. Spencer’s last hope to live beyond the next few seconds. It did not ring.

The warden nodded to the executioner, who, by the way, remained behind a wall inside the chamber and out of our view. Spencer must have sensed what was coming and, while looking directly into my eyes, turned both thumbs upward. A last second display of his arrogance. A death squad member placed a leather mask over Spencer’s face, then he and the rest of the team left the room. The remaining officials stepped back, away from the chair.

Seconds later, the lethal dose of electricity was introduced, causing the murderer’s body to swell and lurch forward against the restraints that held him tightly to the chair.

Suddenly, his body slumped into the chair. The burst of electricity was over. However, after a brief pause, the executioner sent a second burst to the killer’s body. Again, his body swelled, but this time smoke began to rise from Spencer’s head and leg. A sound similar to bacon frying could be heard over the hum of the electricity. Fluids rushed from behind the leather mask. The unmistakable pungent odor of burning flesh filled the room.

The electricity was again switched off and Spencer’s body relaxed.

It was over and an eerie calm filled the chamber. The woman beside me cried softly. I realized that I’d been holding my breath and exhaled, slowly. No one moved for five long minutes. I later learned that this wait-time was to allow the body to cool down. The hot flesh would have burned anyone who touched it.

The prison doctor slowly walked to the chair where he placed a stethoscope against Spencer’s chest, listening for a heartbeat. A few seconds passed before the doctor looked up and said, “Warden, this man has expired.”

That was it. Timothy Spencer, one of the worse serial killers in America was dead, finally.

Timothy Spencer was put to death on April 27, 1994 at 11:13 pm.

 

Unusual facts about Spencer’s case:

– Spencer raped and killed all five of his victims while living at a Richmond, Virginia halfway house after his release from a three-year prison sentence for burglary. He committed the murders on the weekends during times when he had signed out of the facility.

– Spencer was the first person in the U.S. executed for a conviction based on DNA evidence.

– David Vasquez, a mentally handicapped man, falsely confessed to murdering one of the victims in the Spencer case after intense interrogation by police detectives. He was later convicted of the crime and served five years in prison before DNA testing proved his innocence. It was learned that Vasquez didn’t understand the questions he’d been asked and merely told the officers what he thought they wanted to hear.

– Spencer used neck ligatures to strangle each of the victims to death, fashioning them in such a way that the more the victims struggled, the more they choked.

– Patricia Cornwell’s first book, Post Mortem, was based on the Spencer murders.

 

 

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Recommended specimens collected by medical examiners/coroners in post mortem examinations/autopsy

Manner of Death Evidence Samples/Specimens
Suicides, vehicle crashes, and industrial accidentsBlood, urine, vitreous humor, liver
Homicides and/or all suspicious deathsBlood, urine, bile vitreous humor, hair, stomach contents, liver
Drug-related deathsBlood, urine, bile vitreous humor, hair, stomach contents, liver
Volatile substance abuseBlood, urine, vitreous humor, lung fluid, liver

Human Liver, superior view

Keep in mind that the liver is a primary solid tissue for use in post-mortem toxicology. It’s where the body metabolizes most drugs and toxins. Many drugs collect in the liver and can be found even when their presence is absent in the blood.

Blood poisoning

Vitreous Humor, in case you were wondering, is the clear, jelly-like substance that fills the eye. It is commonly analyzed for blood alcohol levels. The coroner uses a needle to extract the vitreous humour for testing.

 

Other samples used for post-mortem testing

 

 

Hair and Nail specimens (usually taken from the back of the head), can be examined for exposure to heavy metals and drugs over a period of weeks to months. Hair is typically tested for heroin, marijuana, amphetamines, and cocaine. Fingernail and toenail testing provides an even longer timetable than the results of testing hair samples. However, since so little is known about how the nails process toxins, the analysis is more involved and difficult for those who conduct and read and interpret the results of those tests.

Stomach Contents contents can provide clues—undissolved capsules or tablets, for example—in cases such as potential overdoses or poisonings. Results depend upon how much time elapsed between ingestion and death.

Bone and Bone Marrow can be used for testing but the availability and condition of bones may hinder the process and/or test results.

 


Drugs typically included in routine post-mortem toxicology

Alcohol (ethanol). Test also includes methanol and acetone1.

Analgesics – Paracetamol (acetaminophen), tramadol 9 (ConZip™, Ryzolt™, Ultracet, Ultram in the U.S.), Salicylates (aspirin)

Antidepressants – Tricyclics (e.g., imipramine, amitriptyline), SSRIs (fluoxetine [Prozac®], sertraline [Zoloft®])

Antihistamines (sedating) – doxylamine, chlorpheniramine, diphenhydramine

Antipsychotics – old and newer generation including subcutaneous or intramuscular injections of long-lasting medication. Haloperidol and Risperidone

Benzodiazepines and “Z” drugs –  (diazepam [Valium®], alprazolam [Xanax®]; zolpidem (Ambien®, Ambien CR, Intermezzo®, Stilnox®, and Sublinox®), zopiclone (Imovane®, Zimovane), zaleplon (Sonata® and Starnoc)

Cannabis – tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) (Marijuana)

Cardiovascular drugs – Diltiazem (calcium channelblockers), Disopyramide (Norpace® and Rythmodan®), propranolol

Cocaine

Narcotic analgesics – codeine, methadone, pethidine, morphine, hydrocodone, oxycodone, fentanyl

Stimulants – amphetamine, methamphetamine, MDMA (ecstasy), pseudoephedrine, fenfluramine, phentermine, caffeine


*Remember, it is not possible to test for every possible drug or poison. Investigators or the medical examiner/coroner must suspect the ingestion of exotic or unusual toxins in order to examine for those substances.

For additional informational, click here.

During their crime-solving duties homicide investigators hear a lot of details, sounds of gunfire and people running, bits of spoken evidence, and much more. But one thing they’d best pay particular attention to is what the body has to say, and believe me, it’s usually a lot.

Dead bodies always have a lot to reveal to investigators!

Putrefaction is the destruction of the soft tissue caused by two things, bacteria and enzymes. As the 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 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, that bacteria, such as septicemia (blood poisoning), would aid in increasing the body’s decomposition.

Temperature plays an important part in decomposition. 70 degrees to 100 degrees F 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.

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

A body will decompose faster during the sweltering days of summertime.

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.

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.

The rule of thumb for the decomposition of a body is that, 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).

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.

Wrong kind of brittle, but who wants to end the post with crunchy lungs? So have some homemade peanut brittle and enjoy your day.

No, I’m not talking about the spirit world, or of zombies. I’m talking about how the living use a victim’s body to help determine the time and cause of death.

First, what happens when a person stops breathing and their heart ceases to beat? The skin begins to pale (pallor) and the muscles immediately begin to relax—all of them, which can produce some pretty unpleasant effects around the south end of the body.

Then come the Mortis brothers, all three of them—Livor, Algor, and Rigor. These guys show up to the party, one at a time, and when they arrive … well, let’s just say the host is the center of their attention. And boy do they ever “spoil” him.

Algor mortis is simply the cooling down of the body after death. A pretty good rule of thumb method to determine the time of death is to take the rectal temperature (#neverusethethumb, for obvious reasons—say NO to the rule of thumb!)  of the deceased, subtract that number from 98.6 (average, normal human body temp), and then divide that number by 1.5 (the average cooling rate of a body per hour under average conditions). The result is the approximate number of hours that have passed since the victim kicked the bucket.

Livor Mortis, or lividity, is the pooling of blood in the lowest portions of the body. Lividity is caused by gravity and begins immediately after death. The telltale signs of livor mortis, the purplish discoloration of the skin, begins the moment the heart stops pumping. This process continues for approximately 6-12 hours, depending upon surrounding conditions, until it becomes fixed, permanently staining the tissue in the lowest parts of the body. When large areas become engorged with lividity, the capillaries in those areas sometimes rupture causing what’s known as Tardieu spots. Tardieu spots present as round, brownish blacks spots.

Rigor Mortis, the contracting and stiffening of the muscles after death, takes a couple of hours to begin and completes in approximately 8-12 hours. The process starts in the smaller muscles of the head and face and moves downward to the larger muscles. When rigor is complete, the process reverses itself starting with the lower large muscles and ending with the smaller face and head muscles. The entire process can last for approximately 48 hours. The body will quickly begin to decompose after rigor is complete.

A person’s body goes stiff in the position they were in at the time of death.

Therefore, if a person died while lying on his back with one arm held straight up and the other straight out to the side, and the police discovered that same body in a bathtub, they’d probably conclude that someone moved the victim after death had occurred. After all, no one sits in a bathtub with their arms in those types of positions … do they? By the way, cops should not automatically rule out things simply because they’re different. Still, in the bathtub with one hand aimed skyward and the other pointing to a tube of Preparation H, a clump of tangled bobby pins, and a tin of ear wax remover. Yeah, somebody moved this one.

– Rigor mortis can cause contraction of the muscles in the epidermis, which also causes goose bumps to appear.

– Hair and fingernails do not continue to grow after someone dies. The skin around them begins to recede after death, which gives the appearance that they’re still growing.

– Age, illness, ambient temperature, fat distribution, and physical exertion just prior to death can all affect the rate of rigor mortis.