Lisa Black author photo

 

A typical Tuesday in November. I trudge from the subway station to the medical examiner’s office. No one plows the sidewalks but there are enough med students and hospital workers from next door to tamp the snow down. When I reach the trace evidence department it is still dark; my boss has not yet arrived so I take care of the most important thing, which is to get the coffee started. Then I head back downstairs for the ‘viewing’, at which all the cases currently waiting to be autopsied are wheeled out and the deskman reads their history. This is so the pathologists can observe, suggest and decide who is going to do which autopsy. Exactly how they work that out, I’ve never quite determined. One doctor has been around so long that he sometimes pokes a body, testing for lividity or some such, without putting on a latex glove first. Not a big deal. If you’re hyper about germs you don’t get into this line of work. So far I’ve been exposed to opened-up victims with HIV, Hepatitis A, B, and C, spinal meningitis and tuberculosis.

I have a plan for the day, a set of tasks I’d like to accomplish, but that is always dependent upon what the morning brings. If a homicide victim arrives, all plans go out the window and the case is worked until there’s nothing more you can do on it.

For those dead of unnatural causes, I come in. If the victim died from a gunshot, I will swab their hands for gunshot residue. If they’ve been beaten, bludgeoned, strangled or stabbed, I will scrape their fingernails for foreign skin and fibers. If they’ve hung themselves, I will mark and remove the ligature. If they were run over by a car, I will look for paint and glass fragments. If it’s a homicide I will collect hair samples, including pubic hairs if there’s signs of sexual assault. I’ll get someone to help me remove the clothing if it hasn’t already been cut off by EMS. Then the deceased goes back into the hall for their next appointment, with the pathologist, and I go upstairs to get my coffee. But they have not seen the last of me, because now I move on to their clothing.

I pop in and out of the autopsy room to see if there are holes in their clothing that correspond with bullet holes or stab wounds in the body, and I note that. If the holes don’t correspond, then the person just needed some new clothes. The area doesn’t smell good. One of the photographers insists that one of the deiners always puts an extra cut in the bowel so that it will smell worse, because he doesn’t like white people, but the photographer is an alcoholic so I take this with a grain of salt.

Then the clothes are examined for gunshot residue, hairs and fibers, and semen. I cut out a piece of the bloody cloth and save it in a manila envelope in case some attorney asks why we didn’t check to make sure the blood on the victim’s shirt belonged to the victim (well, gee, because he had five stab wounds so we kind of assumed the dark red stains on his shirt might well be related).

I break for lunch and, if I’m lucky, sit down for the first time in about five hours. After lunch, provided all the victims and clothing are taken care of, I will work in the lab. It had chairs but it also has my boss. I will take test tubes of blood from the day’s autopsies and drop the blood on pieces of sterile cloth to be frozen and retained for future DNA testing. I will analyze the gunshot residue swabs for barium and antimony, two components used in primer caps, and identify the fibers and compare them to samples from the victim’s and suspect’s clothing.

I might have to go to a scene; the victim might still be there or the crime may be several days old and the officers just want me to examine the blood spatter pattern on the wall. Part of all of the day (and I don’t get to choose which part) might be spent sitting at the courthouse waiting to testify. I may have something to say that will put the suspect in jail for life or I may just be there to say yes, this is the victim’s clothing. Either way I have to sit there as long as they tell me to, out in the hallway with a crowd of people. I don’t dare strike up a conversation with any one of them because they may also be there to testify in that case. So I read a book and avoid eye contact for one or two or eight hours.

Then I grab a cup for the road and head back to the subway station, already planning out what I’d like to get accomplished the next day. Provided there isn’t another homicide.

It’s not as glamorous as it looks on TV. But I wouldn’t trade it for a corner office with a view of Public Square.

Lisa Black’s fourth book Defensive Wounds was released by Harper Collins on September 27. Forensic scientist Theresa MacLean battles a serial killer operating at an attorney’s convention. Lisa is a full time latent print examiner and CSI for a police department in Florida.

 

 

 

Morgue: Pictures

 

Jodi found the body lying beside the path, her favorite jogging trail. She stopped for a closer look, thinking that maybe her mind was up to its usual nighttime tricks—another boogeyman or zombie that turned out to be a bush, or a trash bag filled with leaves left by the park’s “mow, blow, and go” guys. After all, there was no moon, and the closest streetlight was awfully far away. And the shadows, well, they were long, and pretty dark. But this bush had…yes, those are arms and legs and…a head! It was a man. A dead man. Blood. There was so much of it. A knife on the ground. Don’t touch it. Run! Run and then call 911. Yes, 911.

She stood there talking to the detective, but her mind was now focusing on the coroner and his investigators as they loaded the body into the back of the van, shoving it inside as if it were no more than a roll of new carpet. They closed the rear doors, and the one who looked like a stump with arms and legs climbed into the driver’s seat. The brake lights flashed for a second, painting the pavement behind the van a faint red. Then it was gone, leaving a trail of wispy steam in its wake. She wondered what would happen next. I mean, what do they do with murder victims? Where do they take the bodies?

*Warning. Images below are graphic and may not be suitable for some readers and/or children. Please exit if images of death upset or offend you. We’ve posted this this particular piece solely to assist writers with their research.

The body is weighed, sometimes by rolling the gurney onto a set of digital floor scales.

Bodies are placed inside a cold room, or cooler until autopsy.

The body is brought into the autopsy room.

The gurney carrying the body is positioned in front of a station such as this one.

Side view of same station.

Scales for weighing organs.

A pathologist’s tool kit.

Bone saw.

Suturing the rear scalp after examining the brain.

The “Y” incision is closed post autopsy, and the body is released to a funeral home. (Top left is the neck, presenting a ligature mark. Bottom left of photo is the victim’s right, upper chest area).

 

 

 

 

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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 cereal when he was caught in the crossfire between two rival gang members. He was killed instantly by the barrage of bullets that pierced his flesh, striking more than one vital organ. It was all over in mere seconds. Luckily, a passerby saw the whole thing, and with his testimony the police were able to arrest the suspects within hours of the killing. The two shooters were convicted and sentenced to serve ten years in the state penitentiary.

But let’s back up to the night of the shooting. Officer Smith had the unpleasant task of delivering the bad news to the victim’s family. So he locates the man’s wallet and ID, and writes down his address. Within a few minutes the officer parks his patrol car in front of a small brick rancher on the east side of town. He switches off the ignition and waits for the headlamps to click off before calling in his location. He searches his mind for the right words and how to say them.

The house is well lit, and the driveway is littered with plastic kid toys. A girl’s bicycle is leaning against the chain-link fence that separates the lawn from concrete pavement. The blueish glow flickering in the window tells Officer Smith that the TV is on. It’s Wednesday night. Maybe they’re watching the remaining eight American Idol contestants croon their way toward the final prize. Someone on that Hollywood stage will go home tonight. The man of this house won’t ever come home again.

Officer Smith steps out of the car, adjusts his gunbelt, and heads for the front door. He takes his time walking up the three brick steps and then slowly reaches for the brass knocker.

She’s young with short curly brown hair. She holds a little boy on one hip. The girl is around six or seven and clings to her mother’s dress. She’s missing a tooth. Somebody on TV is singing Somewhere Over The Rainbow, the newer version of the song.

The woman smiles at first, then she knows why he’s there and the smile fades. Tears fill her eyes. Next comes the trembling. Officer Smith has seen it all before, many times. He feels the lump forming in his throat, but he can’t get emotional. It’s part of the job and he must be strong while doing it. She cries and he leads her to the living room. She has a seat on the couch while Officer Smith finds the remote and switches off the TV, stopping Ryan Seacrest from announcing who’s in the bottom three. Officer Smith sits in a chair and leans forward, resting his elbows on his knees. He begins…

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 extremely devastating to see.

– The general public can be extremely cruel, sometimes blaming the victim for their own demise.

– 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 medical bills left behind as well.

– Often times, the family must deal with public sympathy for murderers.

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

– The 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 the last time you saw the victim alive.

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

– The appeal process

– The parole process

And the grief goes on and on and on…

 

 

 

Murder: Locating The Smallest Of Clues

 

Sure, anybody can pick up a bullet casing and toss it into a plastic bag. But what about the tricky, hard to find evidence? What do the pros use to collect that stuff?

Self-saturating foam swabs are ideal for the collection of trace DNA, such as shed skin cells. The investigator breaks the isopropanol-filled handle by giving it a squeeze, which causes the foam tip to become saturated with the 91% isopropanol solution. The foam tip is then wiped across the target surface to collect the DNA evidence.

Cuticle sticks for retrieving evidence from the cuticles and other hard-to-reach places.

Swab Shields provide a physical barrier that protects against evidence contamination, mixing with other samples, and they prevent transferring your sample to another surface.

Trace evidence tape is a great tool for locating and picking up items such as, hair, glass particles, and fibers. Simply touch the “sticky side” of the tape to a surface and then lift. Any item on that surface will cling to the tape. To remove the item/evidence place the tape in water (the adhesive is water soluble), then pour the water through a filter. Your evidence can then be retrieved from the filter.

Tacky MatTM is used to collect trace evidence from the bottom of shoes. Have your suspect step on one and you’ve just collected samples from places he’s walked. The Mat can also be placed at the entrance of a crime scene to remove items from the bottoms of officer’s shoes to prevent contaminating the scene with foreign material.

Hand sifters are used to screen out dirt and debris, leaving behind bone fragments and/or other small evidence (shirt buttons, teeth, etc.).

 

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Registration is open for the 2011 Writers’ Police Academy!

Murder solved by a mushroom

Toss out the confessions, fingerprints, tire tracks, and DNA. After all, who needs them when you have perfectly good fungi just waiting to join you on the witness stand. That’s right, mushrooms and other fungi have taken their place in the world of crime-solving. In fact, investigators can use macroscopic and microscopic fungi to help determine time of death (TOD), the time since a body was placed in a particular location, and if the body has been moved since death.

In 2002, the bodies of two young girls, Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, were found lying in the woods near Lakenheath, Suffolk (UK). Without a clue to go on police called in forensic botanist Patricia Wiltshire, a former archaeologist, to see if she could “dig up” any evidence.

Patricia Wiltshire

Wiltshire agreed to help and traveled to the scene where she examined the foliage in the area where the girl’s bodies had been discovered. She noticed something a bit unusual with a group of stinging nettles growing in a ditch.

Stinging nettle plant

A closer look revealed the sprouting of new sideshoots on the nettles, something that only occurs when that particular plant has been damaged by trampling, or other such disturbances. Not only did Wiltshire’s find indicate that someone had walked there, the new shoots have a very specific growth rate—13 days at that particular stage. Therefore, Wiltshire was able to provide police with a time-line. The bodies of the girls had been dumped in the woods 13-and-a-half days earlier, which was when the girls were last seen.

When police finally located a suspect, Ian Huntley, Wiltshire was also able to positively match pollen found on his shoes and in his car to the type in the ditch where the bodies were found.

Connecting plant material and soil to the scene of the crime and to the murderer is nothing new. I once worked a murder in the 80’s where the only clues I had were two small pieces of dried, grayish mud found in the floorboard of a suspect’s car. Long story short, the mud matched the soil found only on a particular riverbank. The clumps of mud also contained a few seeds from plants also found only in that particular area. Guess what? Yep, the mud and seeds were from the area where the murder victim had been discovered.

Remember, fungi (trace evidence) grows just about anywhere, such as stone, leather goods, plastic, lumber and other wood, tile, brick, and concrete.  In fact, approximately 50-100 different species of fungi can be found in a single soil sample. So, the clues are there for the harvesting, and plenty of them. Someone just needs to do it. After all, a good investigator is a creative investigator.

 

 

If you watched this week’s episode of Castle then you witnessed Lanie Parish, V.D. (Voodoo Doctor) examine the body of a murder victim/floater and then say something like, “According to lividity, I’d say the time of death was 12 hours ago, at most.”

Well, we all know that lividity is not a good indicator of TOD, right? And when a person drowns, or is tossed in the water at the time of death, lividity can be absent, or even manufactured by swift currents. So Lanie’s writers were mistaken on all accounts.

So how do the experts determine how long a body has been in the water?

https://i0.wp.com/thepoint.gm/_library/2009/7/dead-body-s.jpg?w=1500

When a body is discovered on dry land there are many indicators of TOD, such as insect activity, body temperature, and rate of decomposition. But those indicators are either highly deceptive or nonexistent in “floater” cases. Therefore, if no one sees the body at the time it was dumped in the drink, there’s really no accurate way to know how long the victim had been under water.

Seeing the need for an accurate method of determining “time in the water,” scientists at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand began studying the various types of bacteria found at different stages of decomposition. They conducted the study at varying temperatures on submerged pig skulls (pigs decompose at a very similar rate to humans).

The team of scientists, led by forensic biologist Gemma Dickson, soon discovered specific bacterial signatures were found at each stage of decomposition. Therefore, the length of time in the water can be pinpointed by determining which bacteria are present upon discovery of the body. A remarkable discovery that, hopefully, can soon be used by law enforcement to determine time of entry into water.

Gemma Dickson University of Otago image

Poison can be defined as any substance that kills or injures. How do we know which substances are poisonous? Easy. Any substance taken in a large enough dose can be toxic. But for the purpose of writing mysteries lets talk about a couple deadly doses – poisons that do the deed neatly, discreetly, and quickly. After all, it’s a little bothersome trying to get a healthy, grown man to consume a lethal dose of suppositories.

NICOTINE – a pale yellow to dark brown liquid.

An unsuspecting victim can succumb to this fishy smelling drug’s effects within a few short hours, but not before experiencing severe diarrhea, vomiting, difficulty breathing, irregular heartbeat, and twitching. The drug starts killing by depressing the brain and spinal cord. Then it paralyzes the skeletal muscles. Coma may precede death.

Symptoms of nicotine poisoning can begin as early as thirty minutes after exposure. A killer may introduce the poison through inhalation, skin absorption, eye contact, or ingestion.

CHLORAL HYDRATE (Mickey Finn, Mickey, knockout drops)

This clear liquid is also available in powder, capsules, and suppositories (and you thought I was kidding in the first paragraph). The drug is a CNS (central nervous system) depressant. It takes its victim on a short, but painful ride before finally killing him. Some early symptoms of chloral hydrate poisoning are confusion, shallow respiration, coma, pulmonary edema (fluid in the lungs), and absent reflexes.

Symptoms begin as quickly as thirty minutes. Death occurs within a few hours.

Interestingly, chloral hydrate was one of the drugs found in Anna Nicole Smith’s body at the time of her death. The prescription for the drug was not in her name. Instead, it had been prescribed to Howard K. Stern, Smith’s friend, attorney, and companion. Did Stern slip Anna a Mickey?

FYI – Marilyn Monroe had chloral hydrate in her system at the time of her death.

Medical examiners sometimes get a bum rap. Their life is not always about plucking the innards from every Tom, Dick, and Harry they meet. M.E.s and coroners play a huge role in solving homicides, and many times they alone do the crime-solving. They’re also responsible for protecting the most valuable piece of evidence in a murder case – the body. Here are a few items used in that process:

Tamper-proof body bag seal (What goes in a body bag, stays in a body bag).

Toe tag (Don’t want to mix up the bodies. Sometimes it’s quite crowded in those cold rooms).

Big Girtha (extra large) body bag w/10 handles and 2 zippers (For those victims who never made that call to Jenny Craig).

Tyvek boot covers – w/PVC bottoms for traction

Evidence drying cabinet

And for that someone special who has everything…

Dead Men Talk (on front) CSIs Listen (on back) T-shirt

Sally Slugger skeleton

Homer Runner skeleton

Crime scene bumper sticker

Glassware

Hats

And for undercover work…

Crime scene boxer shorts

Determining The Time of Death

When the heart stops beating, gravity pulls blood to the lowest point in the body. Blood pooling in those low areas stain the surrounding tissue giving the appearance of bruising. This staining of tissue is called livor mortis, or lividity. For example, a victim lying flat on his back when he dies exhibits lividity on his back, buttocks, and the back of his legs. The same is true on the front of the body, if the victim is found lying face down.

Livor Mortis (lividity) can help investigators determine the time of death. The staining of tissue normally begins within the first two hours after death. The process reaches it’s full peak in eight to twelve hours.

If the victim is moved during the first six hours after death the purplish discoloration can shift, causing the new, lowest portion of the body to exhibit lividity.

After a period of six to eight hours after death, lividity becomes totally fixed. Moving the body after eight hours will not change the patterns of discoloration. Therefore, investigators know a body found lying face down with lividity on the back, has been moved.

Rookie officers have often confused lividity with bruising caused by fighting.

Remember, ambient air temperature is always a factor in determining the TOD (time of death). A hot climate can accelerate lividity, while a colder air temperature can slow it down considerably.

Rigor Mortis is the stiffening of muscles after death. The muscle stiffening (hence the use of the term, stiff) is caused by the loss of adenosine triphosphate (ATP) from the muscle tissue. Without ATP, the muscles can no longer function normally, and begin to contract and stiffen.

Rigor mortis begins in the smaller muscles of the face and neck in about two hours after death. The process then moves downward from the head to the feet. The body becomes completely stiff in approximately eight to twelve hours.

Bodies remain rigid (the rigid stage of rigor mortis) for approximately eighteen hours, at which time the process begins to reverse itself in the exact same order – small muscles first, followed by the larger ones, moving from head to toe.

In approximately twelve hours the body returns to a flaccid state.

Again, like livor mortis, air temperature is a factor that can accelerate or slow down rigor mortis. Certain poisons and illnesses can also affect rigor mortis.

Determing TOD using rigor mortis is not an exact science.

Morgue 2

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

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

WARNING – GRAPHIC IMAGES BELOW!

Pathologists select instruments from a rolling cart.

Tools of the autopsy trade.

Bone saw used for cutting through the rib cage beneath the “Y” incision. It’s also used for cutting through the skull.

Scales for weighing organs.

GRAPHIC IMAGES BELOW!

WARNING>>>WARNING>>>WARNING>>>WARNING>>>WARNING>>>

Upper chest area of a murder victim.

Ligature mark on the neck from strangling.

Post autopsy “Y” incision sutures.

The end. Really…