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.

Poison

Hugh Killdme and The Poisoned Peas

Hugh Killdme let the spoonful of peas and carrots rest on his tongue. He closed his eyes, savoring the combined taste of his two favorite vegetables. In his mind, he pictured the green and orange delicacies as they danced and rolled in boiling hot water. He saw tendrils of wispy pea-carrot flavored steam shimmying and twisting up from the blue porcelain Rachael Ray pot to the gleaming stainless steel hood above the range.

Hugh shifted his thoughts to the basement freezer. He’d purchased the Acme Super-Duper Chill-Zero model from a close friend, an expert on refrigerators and freezers, who owns a local appliance store (Wile E. Coyote isn’t the only character in the world who knows where to shop for a good deal).

Dahmers Applicance Sale The day after Acme’s number one best-selling frost-making machine arrived, he’d packed it to the brim with bags of frozen peas and carrots. Bought every single package within a twenty-mile radius.

Hugh always got all warm and squishy inside when he heard his wife, Earline, say those three little words he so adored—“Dinner is served.” And say them she had, and best of all she’d said them on Peas and Carrots night at the Killdme household.

The second she’d uttered those delicious-sounding words, Hugh rushed to the dining room where he slid his Hush-Puppy-clad feet beneath the table and picked up the silver spoon beside the molten-hot bowl of green and orange ecstasy. As he began to shovel those scrumptious orbs and blocks into his gaping piehole, he couldn’t stop himself. He was just so darn happy that, well, he couldn’t stop his lips from splitting into a very wide but lopsided grin. So wide, in fact, that several tiny, sweet peas almost tumbled out.

He was graveyard dead thirty seconds after swallowing the first spoonful.

The instant Hugh’s face crashed into his dinner plate, sending airborne little green pellets and perfectly cut squares of orange, his wife of thirty years scurried toward the basement to unplug the freezer, muttering along the way about never again cooking another pea or carrot as long as she was able to draw a breath. For that she was thankful. She was also thankful that the poison had worked so quickly. Not because her husband hadn’t suffered long, though.

Instead, she had plans to play Bingo at the Presbyterian church over on Save-a-Soul Drive, and to have her portly husband flopping around on the kitchen floor for hours would have absolutely ruined her evening. Probably would’ve ruined the shine on her brand new linoleum too.

Her mother always said things have a way of working out. She, too, went quickly … bless her heart. It was her affection for green beans that brought about her early demise. But, Earlene was, after all, in need of a new car and mother’s life insurance was just enough to take care of it and the new Acme Fill ‘Er to the Brim Baby above ground pool in the backyard. Earline opted for the model 200xz, the really big one. Sure, it was more expensive, but …

Questions about poisons.

I get them all the time, and the number one question that most often pops up is, “What’s the best poison a fictional wife could use (on her fictional husband) that would act quickly and be difficult for police to detect?” So lets dissect this one by visiting a very real high-profile case.

Tox Screens and Evidence

First of all, police officers probably won’t be the folks who detect the poison. That’s the job of the medical examiner and/or laboratory scientists. Next, to detect a specific poison the medical examiner would have to request specific testing for the substance/toxin/chemical/etc. A tox screen is not a one-stop-shop and does not detect most poisons. This is where the police can be a big help to the M.E., lab technicians, and scientists. For example, a savvy detective may notice a bottle labeled “Husband Killer” on the kitchen table next to the head of the deceased. If so, he/she would collect the bottle as evidence and report his/her discovery to the M.E., who would then order testing for the potentially deadly concoction.

Husband Killer No. 9Thallium – The Poisoner’s Poison

Another huge clue that sharp detectives should pounce on would be the fact that the widow works as a scientist for a bio-pharmaceutical company. And that’s sort of what happened in the case of Tianle Li, the Chinese woman who was convicted of murdering her husband, Xiaoye Wang. Her weapon of choice—thallium.

Thallium, a metal that’s used in electronic switches and some medical devices, was once used as a major component in insecticides and rat poisons. It’s basically odorless and tasteless. And it is well known as the “poisoner’s poison” because it is so difficult to detect in the human body. Thallium use as a pesticide was banned in the U.S. in the early 70’s.

Biotech and pharmaceutical companies are permitted to conduct research using dangerous chemicals, toxins, poisons, extracts, etc. That’s how Tianli Li obtained the thallium she used to murder her husband. As a chemist for Bristol-Myers Squibb, Li ordered thallium to research its effect on humans.

After receiving doses of thallium (how Li introduced the thallium into her husband’s body is not clear) Wang became ill with flu-like symptoms and checked himself into a local hospital, where he lapsed into a coma and died two weeks later.

Had it not been for a quick thinking nurse who’d read about a thallium poisoning case in China, Li would have gotten away with murder … the “perfect murder,” using the “poisoner’s poison” as her instrument of death. The nurse alerted officials who then conducted tests and indeed found thallium in Wang’s body.

So there you have it, my writer friends—two very important bits of information for possible use in your work (writing, that is). One – thallium is the poisoner’s poison because it is difficult to detect. Two – people who work in biotech and pharmaceutical research are able to purchase just about anything in the name of “science.”

By the way, it takes a while for most poisons to get the job done. Having your character go as quickly as Hugh Killdme is, well, fictional.

Botulism

Screen Shot 2017-02-23 at 11.28.02 AMNow for a true story about botulism, the cause of poor Hugh’s death. But this case, the true story, wasn’t murder, just an unfortunate accident that involved a woman, some green beans, and a home canning jar.

Canning jars have lids designed to exhibit a slight indentation in their centers when food is fresh. If the indentation inverts (pops up), the vegetables may be contaminated, and should be discarded.

A woman was preparing dinner for her family and decided to serve some of her home-canned green beans that evening. She picked up a jar of beans, but thought the pop-up didn’t look quite right. So, to satisfy her curiosity, she opened the jar, touched her finger to the bean juice, and tasted it. It tasted fine to her, so she cooked the beans and served the steaming hot dish to her family. The next day, the woman died, but her family survived. The beans contained botulism toxin, produced by the bacteria, Clostridium botulinum.

C. botulinum lives naturally in the soil.

Botulism toxin is one of the most powerful neurotoxins known to man. About 10 ounces could kill everyone on Earth. It works by paralyzing its victim.

Oh, why didn’t the other members of the woman’s family die? The toxin is inactivated by heat.

 

 

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

Ray-after-speaking-event

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.

 

How stuff helps detectives solve murders

 

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.

 

How to properly rot your corpses

 

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…

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Life after death

 

It’s 9pm and Officer Smith has just left the scene of a homicide. The father of two small children, and husband to a loving wife, had gone to the store to pick up a gallon of milk for morning Lucky Charms when he was caught in the crossfire between two rival gang members. The barrage of bullets that pierced his flesh, striking more than one vital organ, killed him instantly. The violent exchange of rounds was over in mere seconds. Luckily, a passerby saw the whole thing, and with his statement the police were able to arrest the suspects within hours of the senseless killing. The two shooters were eventually convicted and sentenced to serve ten years each in the state penitentiary.

But let’s back up to the night of the shooting. Officer Bernard “Buzzy” Smith had the unpleasant task of delivering the bad news to the victim’s family. So he located the man’s wallet and ID and wrote the address in his pocket notebook. A few minutes later, with a lump in his throat he couldn’t make disappear, the officer parked his patrol car in front of a small brick rancher on the east side of town. He switched off the ignition and waited for the headlamps to click off before calling in his location. He searched his mind for the right words and how to say them. An owl hooted twice from the depths of the tree canopy above his car.

The house was well lit and the driveway littered with plastic kid toys. A girl’s bicycle stood propped against the lop-sided chain-link fence separating lawn from concrete pavement. A blueish glow flickered in a front window. The TV was on. Wednesday night. Maybe the family was watching the remaining eight American Idol contestants croon their way toward the final prize. Someone on that Hollywood stage would go home at the end of the show. The man of this particular house, however, would never come home again.

Officer Smith stepped from his patrol car, adjusted his gun belt, and headed for the front door. He took his time walking up the three brick steps before slowly reaching for the brass knocker.

She’s young—20-ish—with short curly brown hair. A little boy clinging to one hip. The girl at her knees, clutching her mother’s dress, is around six. Seven tops. She’s missing a tooth.

Somebody on TV is singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow, a newer, modern version of the classic song.

The woman smiles at first, but the grin quickly melted away. She knows. Tears filled her eyes. Next came the trembling. Shaking. Gut-wrenching sobs.

Officer Smith has seen it all before, many times. But he can’t get emotional. It’s part of the job and he must be strong while doing it. He leads the woman to the living room. She has a seat on the couch while he grabbed the remote and switched off the TV, stopping Ryan Seacrest from announcing the names of the bottom three contestants. Officer Smith sat in a chair across from the new widow. He leaned forward—gun leather creaking and keys tinkling—resting his elbows on his knees. He began to speak…

So what happens next? You know, long after the funeral. What happens to the families of murder victims then? Do they simply go on with their lives? Not hardly.

The families of murder victims say they must deal with many unexpected things that aren’t always associated with death by natural causes. Things such as:

– Always seeing and remembering the condition of their loved one as he/she lay in the morgue. Remember, sometimes family members must go there to identify the body, and this can be an extremely devastating experience.

– The general public can be extremely cruel, sometimes blaming victims for their own demise and the violence that caused the death.

– Some less than reputable media outlets want sensational headlines, even if that means publicizing inaccurate statements about the victim and the victim’s family. After all, they can always retract the statements later, right? Please know that not every media source is this insensitive. In fact, most are not, but the inaccurate stories that do make their way to the eyes and ears of the families of the deceased are very hurtful.

– The financial burden that comes with losing one income. There are sometimes large medical bills left behind as well.

– Families sometimes must deal with public sympathy for murderers.

– The murder trial is difficult to sit through, hearing all the gruesome details.

– Short prison sentences often cause outrage (too lenient for the crime).

– Having to see and hear about the case on TV. Family members do not consider the death of a loved one as prime time family entertainment.

– It’s extremely frustrating to be told, as a family member, that you cannot be in the courtroom during certain parts of the trial.

– Being the last to know anything.

– Wondering if the victim suffered.

– Remembering the things you said, or didn’t say, the last time you saw the victim alive.

– Plea agreements that allow some participants involved in the murder to walk away free and clear of the crime.

– The appeal process.

– The parole process.

– Nightmares.

So many nightmares.

And the grief goes on and on and on…

A pictorial visit to the morgue

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 that 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 contains the victim’s personal belongings.

Autopsy station

Former Butler County, Ohio coroner, Dr. Richard Burkhardt, M.D., at autopsy station.

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

Bone saw 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.

Hotdog Murder

 

Solving a murder case is sort of like working a jigsaw puzzle in reverse, starting with a whole picture—the puzzle-parts all in place. Investigators then begin to pick apart, examine, and scrutinize those individual sections, one-by-one, hoping to quickly locate and identify key pieces.

All murders have them, you know—those oddly-shaped pieces that lead detectives to MOMMotive, Opportunity, and Means. Then, with a killer’s MOM firmly in hand, detectives should easily be able to identify the person who possesses those all-so-important elements…the murderer. Simple, huh? Well, that’s not always the way it works out. Actually, more often than we see in the always-solved cases in our favorite whodunit novels, real-life puzzles are often missing a vital element or two.

Sure, murder cases are often solved quickly, especially those cases where the killer remains at the crime scene waiting patiently for police to arrive. And that happens quite often, believe it or not. And, there are cases where the killer murders someone in the presence of scores of witnesses. The solvability rate in those cases is, of course, very high.

For example, I once worked a case—The Great Hotdog Murder of ’91— that started out as a nice Saturday noontime lunch, with twin brothers enjoying all the hotdogs they could eat, their favorite meal. To the teens’ delight, their father had fired up the charcoal grill and, within a few minutes, the two boys were busy wolfing down dog after dog without wasting the time or energy to bother with buns or forks. Instead, they used their fingers to grab the tube steaks, dragging them through dollops of yellow mustard before nearly inhaling the processed meat sticks.

The grill-marked dogs disappeared at an equal rate, one each per hungry mouth. But dear old dad tossed a monkey wrench into the works when he decided he’d eat one, leaving an unfortunate odd number of piping hot all-beef weiners on the platter. Therefore, the eldest brother (by three or four minutes) was highly offended when his twin grabbed the last dog and quickly chomped off nearly half with one bite.

Knowing that dear old dad kept a loaded revolver in the top right-hand drawer of the buffet, the elder and now dogless twin, grabbed the gun and fired a round into his brother’s forehead, killing him in mid-chew. When I arrived, the dead twin still clutched a bite-size piece of hotdog in his hand. His murdering brother sat at the table waiting patiently for police to cart him off to jail. No tears. No emotion. Just a matter-of-fact, “He shouldn’t have grabbed the last hotdog. He knew I don’t play when it comes to my food.”

Yes, those cases are easily and quickly stamped “CLOSED.” However, when murders are committed by strangers, well, that’s when investigators begin to find a piece or two missing from the puzzle. Such as, cases where racial and ethnic minorities are deliberately killed. Those cases are far less likely to be solved than, say, when any child under the age of 5 is murdered. In those instances, the killer is identified approximately 90% of the time. This is so, because in murder cases involving younger children, the child killers are usually a close family member, or a friend of the family.

How about female murder victims as opposed to male? Well, according to a Scripps study of FBI reports, homicides involving women are solved three-fourths of the time, as opposed to two-thirds in cases involving male victims.

Cases involving prostitutes, gang members, drug dealers, and/or runaways are extremely difficult to solve, because the victims in these cases are in a higher risk category than, say, soccer moms, preachers, teachers, and business people.

The solvability ratio is the most glaring along racial lines, with only 67% of the cases solved when the victim is a young black male (only 64% when African American male victims are between 20 and 24-years-old), as opposed to over 75% of cases solved when the victims are non-Hispanic whites.

In cases of stranger on stranger murder…well, they’re the most difficult to solve.

Then, there are the cases involving lover’s spats and cheating spouses. Those cases are solved nearly every time (98%).

Alcohol or drug-related fights ending in death—90% of those cases are solved by police. And, ethnicity is not a factor in these cases. It is also not a factor in cases of lover and spousal fights that end in murder.

Strangely, when women are the victims of gang-related murder, well, those cases are highly unlikely to be solved.

So, I guess the lesson to be learned from all these facts, figures, and other information is…always share the last hotdog, especially if you are a female gang member who sidelines as a prostituting drug-dealer.

*Stats source – Scripps-Howard News

Peach State death

 

Each state in the U.S. has its own laws and standards regarding medical examiners and coroners, and under which circumstances that autopsies are to be performed.

Georgia operates a unique system, in that both a medical examiner and a coroner may be involved in a single death investigation. Also unique is that the medical examiner’s office, where autopsies are conducted, falls under the jurisdiction of the Georgia Bureau of investigation (GBI), the equivalent to the investigative division of the state police in many states.

GBI also investigates drug crimes, homicide, rape, robbery, fraud, and other major crimes, and they maintain specialized units ready to respond to a variety of incidents—human trafficking, child exploitation, body recovery, and  counter-terrorism, to name a few. They are also available to assist local police departments with investigations.

Georgia’s chief medical examiner oversees the medical examiner and coroner programs throughout the state. Autopsies in Georgia are conducted at the state’s main headquarters in Decatur, or at one of the regional labs in Savannah, Macon, or Augusta.

The main headquarters, as part of its team of eight medical examiners, employs one medical examiner whose specialty is pediatric pathology and fatal and non-fatal pediatric injury. Also on staff is a forensic anthropologist.

Georgia medical examiners investigate all deaths that fall under one the following categories:

1. Those deaths that are apparently homicidal, suicidal, or occurring under suspicious or unknown circumstances

2. Resulting from the unlawful use of controlled substances or the use or abuse of chemicals or toxic agents

3. Occurring while incarcerated or while in the custody of a law enforcement officer

4. Apparently accidental or following an injury

5. By disease, injury or toxic agent during or arising from employment

6. While not under the care of a physician during the period immediately preceding the death

7. Related to disease which might constitute a threat to the health of the general public

8. In which human remains have been disposed of in an offensive manner.

The Georgia Death Investigation Act requires that a medical examiner and/or coroner be notified in death cases, and that a medical examiner conduct a formal investigation and/or autopsy in cases where the victim/deceased died as a result of:

  1. As a result of violence
  2. By suicide or casualty
  3. Suddenly when in apparent good health
  4. When unattended by a physician; no person shall be deemed to have died unattended when the death occurred while the person was a patient of a hospice licensed under Article 9 of Chapter 7 of Title 31 of the Georgia Code.
  5. In any suspicious or unusual manner, with particular attention to those persons 16 years of age and under
  6. After birth but before seven years of age if the death is unexpected or unexplained
  7. As a result of an execution carried out ursuant to the imposition of the death penalty under Article 2 of Chapter 10 of Title 17
  8. When an inmate of a state hospital or a state, county, or city penal institution; or
  9. After having been admitted to a hospital in an unconscious state and without regaining consciousness within 24 hours of admission

    There are five determinations for manner of death:

    1. Homicide – the death was caused by the actions of another person.

    *Remember, homicide and murder are NOT the same. Murder is the unlawful taking of a human life by another. While all murders are homicides, not all homicides are murders. In Georgia, for example, if a homeowner, fearful for his or her life, kills an intruder, or a law enforcement officer kills someone in the line of duty, both are considered homicides but not necessarily murder.

    1. Natural – the death was from diseases or medical conditions such as cancer or heart attack.
    2. Accidental – an unintended death
    3. Suicide – a death that is intentionally self-inflicted
    4. Undetermined – there is little or no evidence to establish
*Writers – please check with the local officials in the area where your story is set. The above information pertains only to the state of Georgia. Laws, rules, and regulations may differ in other areas of the country.

*Source – GBI/Medical examiner’s office

 

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