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Category Archives: Q&A

Q and A: What Would My Victim of Scaphism Look Like After Two Weeks in a Pond?

Q: My question is what would a corpse be like, a victim of scaphism and encased in leather with only the head, hands and feet protruding, discovered after about two weeks in a stagnant pond in summer in England.

Alicat

 

Scaphism

 

A: This is a very complex situation which means that almost anything can happen. Particularly in face of your killer employing scaphism in your poor victim’s ordeal. There are many forces in this circumstance conspiring to destroy the body. After two weeks the decay process would be well along and the body should be swollen and discolored and there might already be some sloughing of tissues, particularly in the hands and the feet so that the fingernails and toenails might have slipped away. The leather binding might lessen the degree of abdominal swelling but maybe not.

Or the decay might be a little less and the body might appear only slightly swollen and discolored. Either is possible. When you add the insects and marine predators such as fish to the picture, tissue destruction could be significant—-or again very mild. Once the body floated or if it were placed on a wooden float of some sort, the insects would easily reach the corpse. These insects prefer warmer and moister areas so they tend to accumulate around the eyes, nose, mouth, groin, and any wounds such as an open abdomen or a stab wound.

Their activity could be significant or minimal, often depending on the weather. If it has rained a lot or if it is windy or if there has been a great deal of fog, insect activity would be diminished as insects do not like these conditions. But, i the weather was warm and sunny, they would be more active. Often when the medical examiner is determining the time of death in bodies that are several weeks old, he will consult a forensic climatologist to assess the weather effects in play and from this make his best guess as to insect activity and this in turn will tell him how long it took for the insects to reach the level of infestation seen. Again is always only his best estimate. And then you throw in predators, both marine and otherwise, and his problems multiply.

At the end of the day, your body would likely have a great deal of decay as described above as well as insect activity. The latter could be everywhere but would be particularly pronounced in the exposed areas where the tissues were easier for the insects to get to. Still they find their way beneath leather bindings and clothing and coverings in order to get to their next meal.

You have a great deal to work with here in that the body can either be slightly or severely decayed and the insect activity can be great or small and anywhere in between. The old adage is that whatever happens, happens. This actually gives you great leeway in how you construct your plot.

 

Q and A: How Could My Character Keep Blood In a Liquid State For Later Consumption?

Q: I have a killer who drinks the blood of his victims. If he wants to bleed out a victim and wind up with blood in his freezer that he can reheat in a Mr. Coffee, I assume he’ll need some sort of anticoagulant. Is that right? Would he have to use it immediately at the murder scene? What would the average person have access to that could serve this purpose, especially if he didn’t preplan his first kill. Better still, is there some way to reconstitute the blood after it coagulates?

Craig Faustus Buck, Sherman Oaks CA

 

LEFT: Clotted and Separated Blood RIGHT: Unclotted Blood

LEFT: Clotted and Separated Blood
RIGHT: Unclotted Blood

 

A: Actually there are several ways to accomplish this. If your killer has access to the victim for several days or weeks prior to the event, he could slip some Coumadin into his food daily for two or three weeks prior to the killing. Coumadin, or warfarin, is an oral anticoagulant that works mostly in the liver to prevent blood clotting. It takes a week or so to build up to levels that would keep the blood liquid.

That might be cumbersome for your story, so there is another choice. Heparin. Heparin should be given intravenously but it works immediately as an anticoagulant. Your killer could inject a large dose of heparin right before the killing. This would of course require that he have full control of the victim or at least convince the victim that the injection was harmless. Either way, if he gave 100,000 to 200,000 units of heparin intravenously the victim’s blood would be anti-coagulated within seconds and he could then bleed him and store the blood as a liquid for an extended period of time.

Lastly, as he drained the blood he could put it into a container that contained EDTA. This is what is used in the blood vials when blood is drawn that needs to be anti-coagulated for certain tests. It’s a white powder that is available from pharmaceutical supply houses. Mixing some of this with the blood would prevent it from coagulating so it could be stored as a liquid.

As far a reconstituting it, once blood clots it immediately begins to separate into the reddish clot and the yellowish serum. Vigorous shaking or running it through a blender could remix the blood, resulting in a red liquid that he could then consume.

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2014 in Blood Analysis, Medical Issues, Q&A

 

Q and A: How Would the Time of Death Be Determined in a Corpse Found in Snow?

Q: In my story, the body of a young woman is found by cross-country skiers in high-mountain country. (Average temps in December: 20 degrees/low to 40 degrees/high;  elevation about 9000 ft.) If the person had been dressed in heavy clothes, and the body had been there about 24 hours, would it be completely frozen? Partially? Would there be any way to determine when death had occurred?

MT, Albuquerque, NM

Jack-Frozen

A: The corpse would be at least partially and could be completely frozen–perhaps with some of the deeper internal organs only partially frozen. It depends on the clothing, exposure, moisture, wind, etc. Also the old rule that whatever happens, happens comes into play here. So the freezing could be either complete or partial.

Under these conditions, rigor and lividity would be delayed to an unpredictable degree so these would be very crude indicators and not very useful in determining the time of death (TOD). Body temperature might be more useful—emphasis on might—but this would not be very accurate either. If the core body temp had reached the ambient temperature, this determination is of no use, since once the corpse reaches the ambient temperature it will remain stable at that temperature, making body temperature useless. For example, if the corpse reached the ambient temp after 18 hours then 24 hours would look like 36 or 48 as far as body temp is concerned.

But if the corpse hasn’t reached ambient temperature, core body temp can be used to estimate the TOD. Not very accurately but at least in the ballpark. Under “normal” circumstances, a body loses heat at about 1.5 degrees per hour, but this depends on many variables. Your scenario is definitely not “normal,” so temp would be lost more rapidly. Could be 2 or 3 or 4 degrees per hour if there is wind or cold rain for example. Let’s say the ME found the core temp was 40 with an ambient temp of 30. This means the body is still cooling since it has not yet reached ambient temperature. Let’s also say that in his experience he believes (educated guess at best) the body would lose about 3 degrees per hour under the circumstances he sees at the scene. If so, subtracting the measured corpse temperature (40 degrees) from the normal body temperature (98) and dividing by the rate of loss (3 degrees/hour) would yield the estimated TOD.

The math: 98-40 = 58; 58/3 = 19 hours.

Based on these calculations, your ME might conclude that the death occurred approximately 19 hours earlier, give or take a couple of hours.

Of course the major flaw here is that the actual rate of temperature loss might vary from his estimate so, despite the math, his assessment remains a best guess. He would likely suggest a broad range—maybe saying the TOD was between 16 and 24 hours earlier. That’s really the best he could do.

So your corpse could be partially or completely frozen and the time of death could be difficult to determine. Except for one more trick: stomach contents.

Let’s say the corpse is frozen so that temp, rigor, and lividity are of no help yet it was known that the victim had eaten a certain food at a certain time prior to his disappearance. It takes the stomach 2-3 or so hours to empty after a meal so if the ME found the undigested meal in the victim’s stomach and knew the time of this final meal from witnesses, he could then more accurately place the time of death as within 2-3 hours after that meal. Let’s say he had lunch around noon, went skiing, and was then found dead 24 hours later. If the ME found that last meal still in his stomach he might suggest that the TOD was between 1 and 4 p.m. the day before. This might be your best bet for narrowing down the TOD.

 
 

Q and A: Can My Female Character Cause Her Pregnancy To Become A “Stone Baby” By Shear Will?

Q: I am writing a story about a woman who, through sheer force of will, doesn’t allow her body to complete childbirth. The baby dies and becomes a lithopedia. My questions are:

Will there be bleeding in spite of the labor stopping? What happens to the placenta? Will the body absorb it or will it harden like some kind cocoon? Will the mother lactate? Will it cause the mother pain to carry the stone baby? Will the woman have periods? Is it plausible that the mother’s body will experience contractions years later? Or pains caused by the stone baby that she could believe are contractions? How long does it take the fetus to calcify into the lithopedia?

Nicole Nelson-Hicks, Nashville, TN

A: First of all, there is no way she could stop her pregnancy, labor, or delivery by simple force of will. The body will do what the body does and it will eject the fetus either as a stillbirth or a live child. There is no way to stop this.

Secondly, lithopedia (stone babies—singular lithopedion) tend to occur in abdominal pregnancies as opposed to intrauterine pregnancies, even though it is possible for the fetus to remain within the uterus. Conception actually takes place in the fallopian tube as the egg descends and the sperm rises – at least in most cases. A tubal pregnancy can result where the fetus grows within the fallopian tube and rarely the fertilized egg will escape the end of the fallopian tube and settle within the abdomen. Sometimes the blood supply is established and the child can grow within the abdomen. Rarely to term but it can grow. It would take 12 or so weeks for the fetus to reach a size that would be easily visible.

x-ray

In this situation sometimes the tissues of the dead fetus are not absorbed by the body but rather become walled off with fibrous tissue and this can often then calcify which is where the term stone baby comes from.

Lithopedion

Often the woman will have no knowledge of this whatsoever and women have lived late in life, and indeed very late in life, and not know this has occurred. It is often found on an abdominal x-ray that is taken for some other reason. But she could feel the discomfort or have some sensation of a mass or fullness in her abdomen and it could be discovered as a result of that.

If the pregnancy were outside the uterus and in the abdomen, as is most likely in these exceedingly rare circumstances, she would not lactate because those hormones don’t appear until very late in the pregnancy. She would most likely have normal periods, and could even become pregnant again since the uterus, ovaries, and fallopian tubes would be normal and would continue to function normally.

However, if the fetus remained within the uterus, this could interfere with future pregnancies, though not always. It would be very similar to a woman who had large fibroids, which are muscular masses that develop with in the muscular wall of the uterus and often cause pain and abnormal bleeding. Sometimes normal pregnancies occur despite these and that could be the case here.

It is possible that she could experience discomfort many years later with the fetus being located in either the uterus or the abdomen so that part of your story would work quite well.

In summary, this is an exceedingly rare circumstance and it is nothing that she could force to happen. Most likely it would be with an abdominal pregnancy but it could be an intrauterine pregnancy—though this would be even more rare. If an abdominal pregnancy, she could easily go through life normally and have other children and be completely unaware or she can develop symptoms later as I described above. If the pregnancy were intrauterine, she would likely have more symptoms and more likely be aware that something wasn’t right. But in either circumstance it would be possible for her to have normal periods and even become pregnant again.

 
2 Comments

Posted by on January 28, 2014 in Medical Issues, Q&A

 

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?

 

460x

 

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 1920’s Linguist Effect A Permanent Change in Another Character’s Voice?

Q: In my story, set in a time analogous to the 1920s, an errant linguist captures a young male prostitute. She hopes to recreate him into her lost daughter, which is part of a longer investigation to discover how her daughter died at her finishing school. Part of the prostitute’s transformation involves a vocal shift upward into a more feminine range.

My question: Supposing the linguist is understandably obsessive, the prostitute is helpless, and there are some generous funds available to fuel her undertaking, how long would it take for the vocal feminization techniques to have a convincing (and consistent) effect? What other aspects would their therapy focus on–semantics, syntax, word choice? Should the prostitute regain his freedom after about nine months of speaking in this artificial way, would it be difficult for him to resume speaking in his normal range?

A. Luschei, Ladera Ranch, CA 

 

A: The technique you describe is simply a different form of speech pattern where the individual is trained to talk in a certain way and at a different timbre. This is the same thing that actors do when practicing for a role that requires a certain accent or speech pattern. This is learned behavior and does not change the individual’s natural speaking voice. He could at any time fall back into his normal voice though the longer he spoke in the new voice the more difficulty he might have in unlearning this behavior. The point is that this learned behavior doesn’t cause a permanent change in his voice because he must always use the affected voice and be conscious, at least on some level, of doing so.

 

Adam's Apple

 

But there are surgical procedures that alter the timbre of the person’s voice. In the situation you describe it would be called vocal feminization. These procedures often involve suturing the thyroid cartilage (Adams Apple) and the cricoid cartilage closer together. This would cause a more permanent change. I don’t think these were done in the 1920s so you’re left with the linguist teaching the young man a type of affected speech. This training would include syntax, word choice, rate and pattern of speech, as well as things like facial expressions, body language, and hand gestures.

 

 
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Posted by on September 16, 2013 in Medical Issues, Q&A

 
 
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