The other night I had a long phone conversation with my good friend Dr. Cyril Wecht and was able to pick his brain on several interesting forensic topics of interest to writers. Dr. Wecht is an internationally renowned forensic pathologist who has published extensively and has been involved in some of the most famous, and infamous, cases in the history of modern criminal justice. Cases such as: JFK, RFK, MLK and James Earl Ray, Elvis, Marilyn, O.J., Tammy Wynette, Sunny von Bulow, Lacy Peterson, Stacy Peterson, Anna Nicole Smith, Mary Jo Kopechne, JonBenet Ramsey, Vince Foster, Ron Brown, Kurt Cobain, and the infamous Manson Family Tate-Labianca murders, just to name a few. Dr. Wecht graciously consented to answer my questions.
DPL: How many autopsies have you performed in your career?
CW: If you go back to 1957 when I started my residency…what is that?…52 years?…then I have performed over 16,000 postmortem examinations myself and consulted on another 36,000.
DPL: That’s an amazing number. The most common question writers ask me is: Is there an untraceable poison or at least some that are very difficult to uncover by autopsy and toxicological examinations?
CW: This is an excellent question and one that vexes forensic pathologists around the world. I would say that the two most common circumstances where a poison is not found are when the toxin used is outside the experience of the examiner or when the toxin is something that is normally found in the body or would expected to be there.
The first category would include exotic poisons such as those from spiders and snakes and other exotic creatures. These aren’t searched for simply because no one ever thinks to. I mean, if you have a corpse and you’re looking for a cause of death, why would you think to search for the toxin of a Japanese blow-fish or a rare African snake? And if you don’t think of it you won’t search for it. None of these turn up on routine toxicological screens so they have to be searched for specifically.
The other category are things that are normally present or would be expected to be found in the body of the victim. Potassium chloride (KCl) is a normal constituent of our blood and cells. It is also very deadly. It is the third drug used in the three drug lethal injection death penalty scenario. An injection of potassium chloride intravenously will cause virtually instantaneous death and the potassium after death is essentially untraceable. It’s supposed to be there. Insulin in a diabetic is a similar situation. Even if elevated insulin levels are found at autopsy, it could easily be attributed to an accidental overdose. Diabetics do this all too frequently. Or what about the cardiac patient who is taking digitalis? An excess amount of digitalis can cause cardiac arrhythmias and death. But finding an elevated digitalis level in the victim’s blood could easily be construed as a medication accident and the thought that a homicide had occurred might never enter the examiner’s mind.