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Category Archives: Cause & Manner of Death

Manner of Death After 33 Years

JBrady

 

Recently, James Brady died. He had received a serious head wound during John Hinckley’s failed assassination attempt on President Ronald Reagan. That was 1981. Now, over three-decades after that event, Brady’s recent death has been deemed a homicide. At Hinckley’s hand.

His death could result in murder charges against Hinckley. After 33 years? How is that possible?

There are five manners of death: natural, accidental, suicidal, homicidal, and undetermined—-the waste basket into which deaths that can’t be confidently attributed to one of the other four categories. The Virginia ME determined that the gunshot to the head that Brady received began a cascade of medical issues that ultimately led to his death and thus he was the victim of a homicide. This might seem odd but it’s really not all that uncommon. Whether prosecutors will file charges and take on such a difficult to prove case remains to be seen.

I blogged on this very subject back on 5-5-11.

For a more detailed discussion of the cause and manner of death check out my book Howdunnit: Forensics.

 

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Crime and Science Radio: Dealing With the Dead: A Life in the Morgue: In Conversation with Dr. Cyril Wecht

Join DP Lyle and Jan Burke as they welcome Dr. Cyril Wecht, internationally renowned forensics pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht as we discuss his life in criminal justice and the numerous famous cases he has been involved with over his stellar career.

BIO: Dr. Cyril Wecht holds degrees in both medicine and law, receiving his MD degree from the University of Pittsburgh and his law degree from the University of Maryland. He holds professorships at the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University School of Law. He has published nearly 600 scientific articles, is on the editorial board of more that 20 medical-legal and forensic scientific publications, and had published several books on forensic science. His list of famous cases is a who’s who in medical-legal investigation.

 

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LISTEN: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/suspensemagazine/2014/03/07/crime-and-science-radio-with-special-guest-cyril-wecht-md

LINKS:

Dr. Wecht’s Website: http://www.cyrilwecht.com

Dr. Wecht’s books and videos: http://www.cyrilwecht.com/books.php

50 Years Later, Wecht Continues To Poke Holes in Report on JFK Assassination: http://triblive.com/news/allegheny/5017529-74/wecht-commission-specter#axzz2tuBTchS1

Dr. Cyril Wecht Believes Killers of JFK, RFK, MLK Had Help: http://www.vindy.com/news/2013/may/01/renowned-pathologist-makes-a-case-for-co/

Dr. Cyril Wecht Lectures on the JFK Assassination: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-muQL-QPKeM

Dr. Cyril Wecht on JFK Assassination: Let’s Uncover the Truth: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YtUL-BpZAu8

Crime Library: JonBenet: From Impressions To Book by Dr. Katherine Ramsland: http://www.crimelibrary.com/criminal_mind/forensics/cyril_wecht/6.html

Dr. Cyril Wecht Discusses Forensic Challenges of Cold Cases: http://www.wtae.com/news/local/allegheny/Dr-Cyril-Wecht-discusses-forensic-challenges-of-cold-cases/19648550

Dr. Cyril Wecht: The Benefits of Forensic Credentialing: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/criminal-justice/real-csi/dr-cyril-wecht-the-benefits-of-forensic-credentialing/

Cyril H. Wecht: What I Know: http://www.pittsburghquarterly.com/index.php/What-Do-I-Know/what-do-i-know-with-cyril-h-wecht.html

Dr. Cyril H. Wecht: Pittsburgh’s Polymath: http://www.popularpittsburgh.com/pittsburgh-info/pittsburgh-history/famous-pittsburghers/dr-cyril-wecht.aspx

 

Final-Exams

 

 

 

 

 

Nip, Tuck, Jump: An Anesthetic Death?

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Beverly Hills is famous for plastic surgery. And famous plastic surgeons. Like Dr. Brian Novak, one the surgeons to the stars. But recently, things didn’t go so well with one of his patients. Like something from the TV series Nip/Tuck, where odd happenings were common, the recent suicide of a 53 year old woman was bizarre and unexpected. Seems she and undergone a face lift, after which she recuperated at the North Camden Drive clinic. At some point she became agitated, confused, ripped off her gown, and now naked climbed to the 10th floor roof where she threatened to jump. Ultimately she did, despite the efforts of a crisis negotiation team.

 

BH Clinic

 

How and why did this happen? I would suspect her tragic behavior had to do with drugs. Not those kind. The medical kind. Anesthetics and pain meds, drugs that work on the brain, the former to induce deep sleep and the latter to reduce the perception of pain. But these drugs can also cause confusion, disorientation, and bizarre behavior. Even delusions and hallucinations. These reactions can be part of the drug’s effects or a reaction to withdrawal or “coming down” from the drugs’ effects. These reactions are often unpredictable and come on quickly, as seems to be the case here. Sad.

 

 

Crime & Science Radio: The Body Tells the Tale: DP Lyle and Jan Burke Interview Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

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The Body Tells the Tale: DP Lyle and Jan Burke Interview Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson

Join DP Lyle and Jan Burke as they explore the world of death, corpses, and decay with Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson. Dr. Bass is the founder of the University of Tennessee Anthropological Research Facility, the so called Body Farm. Jon Jefferson is a journalist, writer, and documentary film maker. Together they write fiction as Jefferson Bass. This will be a lively, or is it deadly, interview.

LISTENhttp://www.blogtalkradio.com/suspensemagazine/2013/11/20/crime-and-science-radio–jon-jefferson-and-bill-bass

LINKS:

The Body Farm-Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Body_farm

Tour The Body Farm: http://www.jeffersonbass.com/videos.html

Video Tour of The Body Farm: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GSDCiOW81mk

WBIR Interview: http://www.wbir.com/news/article/139066/190/Your-Stories-Dr-Bill

JeffersonBass Website: http://www.jeffersonbass.com/index.php

Death’s Acre: Inside the Legendary Forensic Lab the Body Farm Where the Dead Do Tell Tales: http://www.amazon.com/Deaths-Acre-Inside-Legendary-Forensic/dp/0425198324

Metro Pulse: The Cult of Forensics Expert Dr. Bill Bass: http://www.metropulse.com/news/2009/feb/25/cult-forensics-expert-dr-bill-bass/

Peter Breslow’s 2004 NPR Profile of The Body Farm: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=1906569

Taphonomy-Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taphonomy

 

Life Imitating Art? Murder or Accident?

It’s been said that art imitates life and that often life imitates art? Is the death of “spy” Gareth Williams a murder or a tragic case of autoerotic asphyxia? Is it a true mystery anticipated by an author’s question?

 

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The Story:

http://bigstory.ap.org/article/police-spy-bag-probably-died-accident

The Question:

http://writersforensicsblog.wordpress.com/2011/09/18/q-and-a-can-a-murder-be-staged-to-look-like-an-accidental-death-from-autoerotic-asphyxia/

Two other posts on autoerotic asphyxia:

http://writersforensicsblog.wordpress.com/2009/06/02/autoerotic-asphyxia-a-very-bizarre-case/

http://writersforensicsblog.wordpress.com/2009/06/05/autoerotic-asphyxia-redux-david-carradine/

 

 

Q and A: Can My Villain “Force Feed” Pills To a Dead Woman?

Q: My hero, an investigative journalist, is looking into the death of a woman at an acid house/rave party in the early 1990’s. The novel is set in the present day and so the hero has no access to the body, just autopsy reports, coroners reports, the transcript of the inquest, etc. The woman was a light user of Ecstasy but the autopsy discovered that she had 70 ecstasy pills in her stomach. The scenario I want to create is that the hero discovers that while the woman took some of the pills willingly, she was then force fed others, and then after she died she was force fed yet more. In order for this scenario to work I’m wondering the following:

1) For how long after death does stomach acid continue to operate?

2) For how long after death would the digestive system continue to break down the ecstasy and would the ecstasy continue to be absorbed into the bloodstream?

3) Is it likely/possible that a sizeable amount of pills would remain undigested in her stomach, bearing in mind that the body was not found for a number of hours?

4) What injuries/signs on the body would there be of someone force feeding her the pills?

5) Is it possible to force feed somebody pills after death, how would they get the corpse to “swallow” and what injuries might be caused to the body as a result?

James, St Albans, UK.

 

PIlls

 

 

A: At death, all metabolic processes cease immediately since there is no longer blood flow to keep these processes going or even to keep the tissues and cells responsible for these activities alive. This includes the digestive processes. Sure there could still be a small amount of acid effect but this would only be from the acid in the stomach at the time of death and this would be quickly neutralized by the materials the acid was combining with. The bottom line is that all digestive processes cease immediately on death, more or less freezing the stomach contents in time. This is also true for the level of most toxins in the blood and urine, which offers the medical examiner a tool for determining the cause and time of death.

At death, the stomach would no longer move or churn or secrete acids and digestive enzymes so the ecstasy would remain intact as it was at the time of death. Yes there could conceivably be residual whole pills and in fact this is not uncommon in overdoses of all kinds. Some dissolve and are absorbed prior to death and others do not and these remnants can then be tested to determine what they are. All the stomach contents would remain intact until the decay process destroyed them, so if the body was found in a reasonable period of time, the stomach contents could be analyzed for their chemical characteristics, which would include the presence of any drugs or alcohol.

It is very difficult to force-feed a living person pills and so doing could lead to trauma around the mouth and face as the pills were shoved into the victim’s mouth and his mouth and nose held close until he swallowed. Or there could be no trauma and in which case there would be no way of knowing this. But evidence of trauma might suggest a force-feeding. It would be a best guess but an experienced medical examiner can usually make this determination. Since all processes and movement by the deceased stop at death, swallowing cannot occur and force-feeding a corpse is impossible. The pills would simply collect in the mouth and throat.

In your victim there could easily be undigested pills and toxicological testing of these, and of course blood and urine, would reveal what chemicals were in the victim’s stomach and system. Since your body is found several hours later there would be essentially no decay and therefore everything in the bloodstream and in the stomach would remain intact more or less as it was at the time of death. With facial trauma the ME might consider that the OD was forced, and in the absence of such evidence might simply think it was an intentional or accidental OD.

Also this ARTICLE on my website might help.

 

Q and A: Can My ME Uncover Drugs in a Charred Corpse?

Q: I have two characters who are found dead in their house, having been at the center of a fire that turned into a wildfire. Before the fire, a hitman gave them some type of medication that he believed would not be detected in an autopsy to cause them to go unconscious or unable to move while he set the fire around them and escaped. The idea is that I want it to look — on the outside, at least — as though they accidentally caused the wildfire, starting in their home in the forest. Then, it’s discovered that they were, technically, murdered by someone giving them a strong sedative (or something) and they were burned in the fire.

When the medical examiner does the autopsy, what is he likely to be able to notice? I read that bodies are usually not burned completely in a fire, but what would the ME find? What kinds of things would he notice and talk about in the report?

Is there a drug that would have a sedative effect on the characters that would NOT show up in an autopsy? Or something that might show up with a particular test and what reasons could an ME have to run that test?

Kari Wolfe, Colorado Springs, CO

 

Iraqi Convoy Bombed During Persian Gulf War

 

A: You are correct that fires rarely destroy a body completely. The fire simply does not burn hot enough or long enough to completely destroy the body in most structure and automobile fires. The same would hold for wildfires. The body would likely be charged severely on the outside and for several inches down but deep inside most tissues would remain intact. This would allow the medical examiner to test the muscles, brain tissue, liver, blood, bone marrow, urine, and the vitreous humor inside the eyes for various drugs.

Almost any narcotic or sedative would work for your purposes but most of these are easily found with even simple toxicological screening and for sure by more sophisticated toxicological testing using gas chromatography and mass spectroscopy.

More sophisticated drugs are not revealed by a routine drug screen and therefore more difficult to find. Add to this the fact that the medical examiner might have no reason to go to the time and expense of looking for more esoteric toxins if all evidence pointed to the victim having died in the fire.

But what if the victim didn’t die in the fire? What if the victim was already dead before the fire started? This would change everything since in that case the medical examiner could not say that the cause of death was asphyxia from the fire but rather that something else must have killed the victim. In the absence of overt trauma or another obvious cause of death, the ME would likely do more complete toxicological testing.

 

How would the ME determine that the victim was dead before the fire? One clue would be the carbon monoxide level in the blood. If this is low, the victim was not breathing while the fire was consuming him. If the carbon monoxide level was high it would indicate that he was breathing and had inhaled carbon monoxide, which comes from the burning of wood and almost any other product. The normal carbon monoxide level is less than 5% but in victims of fire it can be 60 to 90%.

Also, if the victim was still breathing during the fire he would inhale soot and heat. The heat would damage the throat and airways and soot and other fire debris would be inhaled deeply into the lungs. Finding these would indicate the victim was alive while the fire burned and not finding them would suggest a prior death. This latter situation could launch a more complete toxicological analysis of the remains and ultimately lead to the lethal drug. Such testing could take many weeks, even months, so that you can delay the discovery of the true cause of death for almost as long as you need for story purposes.

Rare toxins you might consider would be succinylcholine, PSP (paralytic shellfish poisons), Rohypnol, GHB, and a few others.

 
 
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