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Category Archives: Time of Death

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.

 

Can Odor Reveal the Time Of Death?

One of the most important determinations that the medical examiner must make in any death investigation is the Time Of Death (TOD). This alone might help solve a homicide. Who had the motive, means, and opportunity? The time of death relates to the opportunity. If the death occurred while the primary suspect was in another state or had a solid alibi, then he moves down the suspect list. On the other hand, if the TOD was determined to be a time frame where he was in the neighborhood, then he remains a viable suspect.

The ME uses many techniques to help estimate the TOD. Check out this ARTICLE for a brief overview of these techniques. One of the methods he employs is the degree of decay that has occurred. He must take into account the environmental conditions near the corpse and then must make a best estimate as to how fast the decomposition process would have advanced under those conditions. This is always a best guess, as is the case with each of the techniques he employs.

When a corpse decays it undergoes a chemical decomposition and this process releases many volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the surrounding air. These compounds are at least partially responsible for the odor of decay and they tend to be released in a predictable pattern as the decay process progresses. What if these VOCs could be sampled and used as a more scientific method for determining the Post Mortem Interval (PMI)? That is, the time since death.

Research is currently underway to assess this technique. Using the combination of gas chromatography and mass spectrometry (GC/MS), researchers have found that these volatile chemicals can be trapped and analyzed. Hopefully this technique will prove to be useful in narrowing down the TOD. We’ll see.

 

Gas Chromatograph

Gas Chromatograph

 

 

 

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.

 

CYRIL-WECHT

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

 

 

 

 

 

Bacteria and Time Of Death

bacteria1

 

 

One of the most important things the ME must determine in any death investigation is the time of death. This determination can support or destroy alibis and suspect and witness statements, and point the finger at certain individuals while directing it away from others.

The ME uses various techniques to make his “best guess” as to the victim’s time of death. Things like body temperature, rigor mortis, lividity, stomach contents, and a few other determinations. Unfortunately, most of these are only marginally accurate.

Here is an article I wrote on this subject: http://www.dplylemd.com/DPLyleMD/Art-Timely_death.html

Any tool that can help make this assessment more accurate would be welcome.

Researchers at Sam Houston State University’s Department of Biological Sciences are looking into just such a tool. Bacteria. Just as insects visit a corpse in a more or less predictable pattern, it seems that bacteria do also.

We’ll see how this pans out but it’s very interesting.

 

 

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.

 
 

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

CSR 300x250-72dpi

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

 

Bloodstain Camera Finds Blood Quickly and Efficiently

Detecting blood at a crime scene is often essential for determining if a crime did indeed occur and how the act unfolded—crime scene reconstruction. At the scene, a meticulous search for blood can be tedious, time-consuming, and eat up many man-hours.

 

Techs search for bloodstains

Techs search for bloodstains

 

Shed blood is not always obvious. The stains are not always patent (visible) but rather latent (invisible). The standard in such situations has been to employ Luminol, which can find even very small latent bloodstains. But Luminol takes time and requires darkness—not always obtainable, particularly in outdoor, daytime crime scenes.

 

Luminol helps expose latent bloody shoeprints

Luminol helps expose latent bloody shoeprints

 

A new technology developed by Dr. Meez Islam and colleagues at Teeside University promises to not only be able to detect latent blood spatters quickly but also age the blood very accurately. With month-old stains the device, which uses hyperspectral imaging, can narrow its deposition down to a day and with fresh blood down to an hour. This should greatly help with Time of Death determination—-or at least the time when the blood was shed.

 

Fresh blood spatter

Fresh blood spatter

 

Blood exits the body bright red but with time and oxidation becomes rusty brown and does so along a predictable timeline. Accurate determination of the bloodstain’s color with hyperspectral imaging reveals its approximate age.

Very cool. And potentially very useful.

 
 
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