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Monthly Archives: February 2011

Q and A: Will a Decaying Corpse Actually Produce Alcohol?

Q: Is possible or likely for blood alcohol levels to increase or decrease in a decomposing body, and if so during what stages of decomposition?

A: Alcohol is usually consumed in the decay process but may actually be produced and this might cloud any toxicological examinations on the corpse. Make it look as if the victim consumed more alcohol than he actually did.

I must point out that alcohol is not commonly produced but it does happen. The alcohol is a byproduct of the action of some types of bacteria that are involved in the decay process. This means that alcohol can only appear during active decay. What is that time period? A little about putrefaction.

The decomposition of the human body involves two distinct processes: autolysis and putrefaction.

Autolysis is basically a process of self-digestion. After death, the enzymes within the body’s cells begin the chemical breakdown of the cells and tissues. As with most chemical reactions the process is hastened by heat and slowed by cold.

Putrefaction is the bacteria-mediated destruction of the body’s tissues. It is this decay that might cause alcohol formation. Not always, but sometimes. The responsible bacteria mostly come for the intestinal tract of the deceased, though environmental bacteria and yeasts contribute in many situations. Bacteria thrive in warm, moist environments and become sluggish in colder climes. Freezing will stop their activities completely. A frozen body will not undergo putrefaction until it thaws.

Under normal temperate conditions, putrefaction follows a known sequence. During the first 24 hours, the abdomen takes on a greenish discoloration, which spreads to the neck, shoulders, and head. Bloating follows. This is due to the accumulation of gas, a byproduct of the action of bacteria, within the body’s cavities and skin. This swelling begins in the face where the features swell and the eyes and tongue protrude. The skin will then begin to “marble.” This is a web-like pattern of the blood vessels over the face, chest, abdomen, and extremities. This pattern is green-black in color and is due to the reaction of the blood’s hemoglobin with hydrogen sulfide. As gasses continue to accumulate, the abdomen swells and the skin begins to blister. Soon, skin and hair slippage occur and the fingernails begin to slough off. By this stage, the body has taken on a greenish-black color. The fluids of decomposition (purge fluid) will begin to drain from nose and mouth. This may look like bleeding from trauma, but is due to extensive breakdown of the body’s tissues.

The rate at which this process occurs is almost never “normal” because conditions surrounding the body are almost never “normal.” Both environmental and internal body conditions alter this process greatly. Obesity, excess clothing, a hot and humid environment, and the presence of sepsis (infection in the bloodstream) might speed this process so that 24 hours appear like 5 or 6 days have passed. Sepsis is particularly destructive to the body. Not only would an associated fever from the infection cause the body temperature to be higher at death, but also the septic process would have spread bacteria throughout the body. In this case, the decay process would begin quickly and in a widespread fashion. A septic body that is dead for only a few hours might appear as if it has been dead for several days.

As opposed to the above situations, a thin, unclothed corpse lying on a cold surface with a cool breeze would follow a much slower decomposition process. Very cold climes may slow the process so much that even after several months, the body appears as if it has been dead only a day or two. Freezing will protect the body from putrefaction if the body is frozen before the process begins. Once putrefaction sets in, even freezing the body may not prevent its eventual decay. If frozen quickly enough, the body might be preserved for years.

So, whether a particular corpse actually produces alcohol or not is unpredictable. How long it takes depends upon the conditions the corpse is exposed to. In a corpse in an enclosed garage in Houston in August, this process will be very rapid and the corpse will be severely decayed after 48 hours. If parked in a snow bank in Minnesota in February it might not even begin the decay process until April or May when the spring thaw occurs. And anything in between. The appearance of any alcohol would coincide with the time frame of the bacterial activity.

So how does the ME get around this possibility? How can he determine the actual alcohol level that was present prior to the decay process kicking in? He can’t with any absolute accuracy, but he does have a tool that will help him make a best guess. He can extract the vitreous humor from the victim’s eye—this is the jelly-like fluid that fills the eyeballs. The alcohol level within this fluid matches that of the blood with about a two-hour delay. That is, the level within the vitreous at any given time reflects the blood alcohol level that was present approximately two hours earlier. And the vitreous is slow to decay so it might be intact even though the corpse is severely decayed. By measuring the vitreous level the ME will know the blood alcohol level two hours prior to death and he can then estimate the blood alcohol level at the time of death.

 


 

Historical Forensics Class–More Info

I’ve received several questions about the class and apologize for any confusion. The class is an on line, real-time class that runs through the month of March. Once you sign up, you will be invited to join a Yahoo Group set up for the class. This will occur before March 1st when the classes begin. Then the various classes will be added twice per week and discussions will be ongoing for the entire month. Here is the class schedule:

Tuesday, March 1: Introduction to the workshop

Wednesday, March 2: Lecture 1: Introduction to Forensic Science

Monday, March 7: Lecture 2: Early Forensic Scientists and the Coroner

Wednesday, March 9: Lecture 3: The Autopsy

Monday, March 14: Lecture 4: Fingerprints

Wednesday, March 16: Lecture 5: Toxicology

Monday, March 21: Lecture 6: Firearms Examination

Wednesday March 23: Lecture 7: Blood Typing

Monday, March 28: Lecture 8: Final Questions

Again, to sign up go HERE

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2011 in Forensic History, Writing

 

Upcoming Historical Forensics Class

Want to know where it all started? Learn how fingerprinting, toxicology, blood analysis, firearm examinations, and autopsies developed and were used in criminal investigations a hundred years ago? Sign up for my Coffin Class for the Romance Writers of America’s Kiss of Death Chapter. It begins March 1st. Here are their descriptive materials and sign up instructions.

Title: Historical Forensics

Instructor: D.P. Lyle, MD

Class Description: Today we’re all familiar with the marvels of CSI, whether from reading mysteries or true crime or watching television programs and movies. But all these ways to pin the crime — and the criminal — down had to start somewhere! So where and when did it all begin? And what sorts of things were early forensic investigators able to do?

This class will cover the late 19th and early 20th centuries, an era that gave birth to so many forensic techniques: fingerprints, blood typing, firearm’s examinations, toxicology, and the expansion of the autopsy into the forensic arena. This will give the writer of historical fiction the accurate information needed and will give all crime writers a firm foundation for understanding the world of modern forensics.

Dr. Doug Lyle, M.D. will lay the historic groundwork in March 2011′s Murder One workshop, HISTORICAL FORENSICS.

To sign up go HERE

 
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Posted by on February 24, 2011 in Forensic History, Writing

 

Aphasia: A Frightening Symptom

“I knew something wasn’t right as soon as I opened my mouth.”

I am sure many of you, whether you saw it live or later on a news broadcast, looked on in shock as Emmy Award-winning CBS reporter Serene Branson broadcast live from the recent Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. Myself, and likely every other physician watching, knew exactly what this was.

Aphasia.

That was the symptom anyway. The cause was not so apparent. Her garbled speech probably made many of you first think that she had had a stroke or perhaps drugs must be involved. A stroke was definitely a possibility, and in fact that or a Transient Ischemic Attack (TIA) were very likely, but drugs not so much. She wasn’t intoxicated or disoriented or slurring her words as would be the case with drugs.

She was scared. Rightly so.

I thought she handled the entire episode exceptionally well under the circumstances. Imagine yourself live on national TV and the words that form in your head leave your mouth as nonsense gibberish? But she didn’t panic though the fear she felt was written on her face. She threw things back to the studio and waited for them to pick up the ball. Watch the video and you will witness a classic example of acute expressive aphasia. Seen it too many times to count. You will also witness a very brave and professional woman exhibit poise–grace under pressure.

Even though her aphasia was apparent, the exact cause of it wasn’t. Not on that brief clip. That would come later after she underwent an evaluation and fortunately for her the news on that front turned out to be good.

So, what is aphasia?

 

 

Aphasia is a fascinating and very complex neurologic disorder that can be divided into two basic types: Receptive and Expressive. Receptive aphasia is an inability to comprehend visual or auditory information while expressive aphasia is an ability to communicate words or thoughts. Each can occur separately or in combination and each comes in many varieties.

In a receptive aphasia, the person might not be able to comprehend spoken words, written words, pictures, or objects. For example, if someone wrote down the word watch, the victim might not be able to say the word yet could point to a watch or a picture of a watch. Or the victim might be shown a watch and be unable to say the word, yet be able to write it down. Or vice versa–he might be able to write it down but not say it. Or someone might say the word watch and the victim might be able to write the word on a piece of paper but be unable to identify a watch laying on a table before him. And again, vice versa. He might be able to identify it but not write it. Victims of receptive aphasia have difficulty perceiving what they see and hear and their symptoms come in many flavors.

An expressive aphasia is the inability to say what the person wants to say. He might know the words in his head, know what he wants to say, yet be unable to speak them.

Some individuals have a combination of an expressive and a receptive aphasia. In its severest form this is called global aphasia. People with this type of disorder have, as you would imagine, a great deal of trouble communicating.

What causes this odd problem? Things like strokes, tumors, trauma, infections, psychiatric disorders such as schizophrenia, certain drugs, and migraines. Yes, migraines.

Migraine headaches are not simply very painful headaches. They are complex neurological events and can even occur with no headache. They are in the broader family of vascular headaches, as are Cluster Headaches, since they seem to arise from alterations of blood flow to the brain due constriction (narrowing) and dilation (opening) of the arteries that supply blood to the brain. This results in auras and migraine associated symptoms and signs such as nausea, dizziness, photophobia (light sensitivity), phonophobia (sound sensitivity), visual light flashes and scotomas, partial blindness including tunnel vision and hemianopsias, numbness, paralysis, confusion, disorientation, auditory and visual hallucinations, and the list goes on to include aphasia.

It seems that Serene Branson had a combination of expressive and receptive aphasias. The video clearly shows an expressive component but in interviews I’ve read she said that before she went on the air she felt odd and when she looked at her notes the words made no sense. That’s a receptive problem.

Regardless, from the reports I’ve read it appears that a migraine syndrome is what caused Ms. Branson’s aphasia and that’s much better than a stroke or a tumor. With proper treatment she should do fine and be back at work very soon. I know we all wish her the best.

 
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Posted by on February 19, 2011 in Medical Issues

 

Orange County Sisters in Crime ForensicFest 2011 this Sunday

Join us this Sunday for the First Annual ForensicFest Panel sponsored by the Orange County Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Details:

SinC, Orange County Chapter
Sunday, February 20, 2011, 2:30 p.m.
ForensicFest 2011 with D. P. Lyle, MD, forensic anthropologist Dr. Judy Suchey, crime scene cleaner Gary Bittner, and police sketch artist Michael Streed
Irvine Ranch Water District, 
15600 Sand Canyon Ave. 
Irvine, CA
http://www.ocsistersincrime.org

 
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Posted by on February 17, 2011 in General Forensics

 

Forensic Science Writing Opportunity

Want to learn to write for scientific publications? My friends at The Forensic Panel are offering an internship that will teach you the skills you need while you research, write, edit, and footnote forensic science articles. Here is the info from Jada Stewart:

Ever imagined the cutting-edge of forensic psychiatry in the real world – from a writer’s perspective? A practice best known for its role at the heart of some of the most complex and sensitive cases in America today, The Forensic Panel is also involved in a range of other cutting edge forensic science activities as well. Writing for scientific and general audiences ranging from ABC News.com to blogs on the most depraved crimes, The Forensic Panel and its Chairman, forensic psychiatrist Dr. Michael Welner, are always probing the next frontiers. Many don’t know that they host a highly sought after internship as well – which they are now developing specifically for writers interested in forensic science, crime, and law.


The Forensic Panel is a New York-based multi-specialty forensic science practice covers psychology, psychiatry, toxicology, pathology and medical science. It’s pioneering research, The Depravity Standard, has far reaching implications for public policy. We featured it at last years Thriller Fest, hosting its developer, Dr. Welner in front of an audience of thriller writers who spend their every day with the depraved. The research is now studying actual murder cases from the files of jurisdictions around the United States, as it puts finishing touches on an evidence-based standard to define evil crimes.

The Depravity Standard research has spawned Dr. Welner’s latest initiative – to inventory everyday evil, in order to inspire clinician psychotherapists and psychiatrists to take the initiative to eliminate the evil choices others make in the everyday.

The high profile, multifaceted cases on which The Forensic Panel consults and the research that the practice spearheads lend to challenging writing opportunities on well-circulated platforms. Writing opportunities range from editing and researching for reports on cases, articles on cases and forensic science topics for general news interest, blog articles on the Depravity Standard and other forensic sciences, synthesizing scientific or legal manuscripts and creating press releases.

For those who are eager to integrate their writing skills into an exciting and richly informative environment, The Forensic Panel offers a Forensic Science Internship Program. Individuals within the program participate in writing, researching, editing and footnoting receiving hands on and fascinating experiences transferrable to future careers in fields ranging from fiction writing to investigative journalism – or even a career in the forensic sciences and academics. Furthermore, the opportunity provides interns with the platform to hone and develop their research/investigative skills – essential skills in the field of forensic writing.

Our remote/distant writing positions offer flexible schedules, allowing responsible individuals to complete tasks with supervision through telephone and email. Interns will learn various stages of the forensic science expert’s contributions in the legal process while completing a variety of duties involving extensive research and creative writing.

This is an un-paid internship opportunity in which individuals would have access to a multitude of resources while receiving training and supervision. The ideal candidate has a strong background in English, Journalism, Science or Law, a feeling for new media, and a passion for writing and research.

For more information, please contact jstewart@forensicpanel.com.

 
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Posted by on February 15, 2011 in General Forensics, Guest Blogger, Writing

 

Q and A: What Type of Snake Was Prominent in the Old West?

Q: My story takes place in the Old West. What kind of snake might bite my cowboy and what was the treatment? Could he be in a coma for a while yet recover? Or should I think of something like a beaver?

A: There are approximately 120 species of snakes in the US, but only about 20 are poisonous. Every state has at least one venomous snake except Maine, Alaska, and Hawaii. All the bad guys are pit vipers except for the coral snake, which ranges throughout the Southeastern US. Pit vipers derive their name form the small heat-sensing “pit” near the eyes, which helps them locate prey. The deadliest of the pit vipers are the Diamondback rattlers, both Eastern and Western.

In the Old West, your character would most likely encounter a Western Diamondback or a Sidewinder, another species of rattler. Both can be deadly.

 


Western Diamondback

 

Sidewinder

Today, with modern treatments (such as antivenin) and with more rapid transport of victims to the hospital, only 5 or 6 deaths occur out of the 7000 to 8000 snakes bites per year. In the Old West, the mortality was considerably higher. Ninety-eight percent of bites are to the extremities—legs, arms, and hands.

The signs and symptoms of snakebite are divided into local and systemic (total body) reactions. Snake venom is a complex fluid. It typically has several proteases (enzymes that breakdown proteins), which can lead to severe local tissue damage, as well as systemic neurological and blood toxins that cause the systemic symptoms.

Local effects might be fang marks, pain, swelling, redness, the appearance of bullae (blisters), lymphangitis (red streaks up the extremity), and painful knots in the arm pit or groin (due to swelling of the lymph nodes). The localized damage can be so severe that surgical debridement (removal of dead tissue) and even amputation might be necessary. Also, infection can occur in the injured tissues, which can also be serious and deadly, particularly true in the pre-antibiotic era of the nineteenth century.

Systemic symptoms include nausea, vomiting, numbness and tingling if the hands, face, and feet, weakness, a metallic taste in the mouth, shortness of breath, confusion, low blood pressure and finally shock, coma, and death. The victim’s blood might clot or hemolyze (breakdown) and either of these can lead to kidney damage and death.

Or the victim could survive. It might take several days for him to be up and around and a week or so before he regained all his strength. Survival was more likely when the envenomation was less, the victim was otherwise healthy, and he had a lucky star smiling on him.

Since you want your character to survive, I would suggest he suffer a bite to the leg or arm by a rattlesnake. A Western Diamondback if in a wooded or scrub-brush area and a Sidewinder if in the desert. He would develop the above systems, both local and systemic, and could be in a coma for a day or two, followed by a day or two of confusion and delirium. He would gradually “come around” but would be weak for several days.

There was little treatment available during the time period of your story. They would likely make a cross-cut of the puncture site and suck out the venom. Though this does little good it was a standard treatment until 30 years or so ago. They would probably put warm compresses on the bite area and watch over the victim with expectation and prayer.

A beaver would do none of this but would likely hurt like hell. Stick with the snake.

 
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Posted by on February 11, 2011 in Medical Issues, Poisons & Drugs, Q&A

 
 
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