Monthly Archives: April 2010

Guest Blogger: Dr. Allen Wyler On Amnesia

One of my wife’s favorite movies is The English Patient, primarily because she loves Ralph Fiennes, the male lead. I like it because the depiction of amnesia is very realistic. The word comes from Greek and refers to a memory disturbance, and the experience is more global than a person being able to recall who he or she is.

Memory is a complex process that includes recognizing an event, person, or object and then storing it in the brain. But memories are of no value unless they can also be retrieved. Typically, amnesia results from disrupting either the laying down or the retrieval of memory. The causes have traditionally been divided into “organic” or “functional.” Organic causes include damage to the brain through physical injury (like the plane crash in The English Patient), neurological disease such as Alzheimer’s disease, or the use of certain (generally sedative) drugs (my favorite is alcohol). Functional causes are psychological factors such as mental disorder, post-traumatic stress or, in psychoanalytic terms, defense mechanisms.

As we experience things the circuits in our brain are activated and monitored by the process we call consciousness. This is purely an electrical phenomenon served by multiple networks of neurons. The moment our attention turns to something else, so does the firing of the involved neurons. But for several seconds a trace of activity remains, just like the spot that lingers after staring into a bright light and closing your eyes. This is the first hint of memory, because the trace is now of something in the past. If this is not worth saving the signal is overtaken by other experiences. If, however, it’s something we want to remember a chemical reaction begins that takes several hours. Scientists are not exactly sure how memories are stored chemically, but hints suggest it involves a protein. Sleep, particularly slow-wave sleep, probably has a significant role in consolidating memories.

Also poorly understood is how memories are retrieved and brought back to consciousness. Specific brain areas, such as the temporal lobe, are rich in memories, but removal of a temporal lobe does not necessarily result in significant memory loss. However, the destruction of both hippocampi results in the inability to lay down or retrieve memory.

So what does this have to do with Doug’s forensic theme? Well, for one thing, it points out how fragile the entire memory process is, how easily it may be influenced, and that one of the first things a good defense lawyer will attack is a witness’s memory.

Dr. Allen Wyler, a native of Seattle, WA, is the author of the medical thrillers DEAD HEAD and DEADLY ERRORS. He practiced neurosurgery for many years before retiring to become Medical Director for Northstar Neuroscience, a start-up medical technology company. In 2007 he left that position to write full time.


Dental X-Rays and Age Determination

I got a heads up about this interesting case from my friend Julie Kramer.

It seems that Mahdi Ali will have to visit the dentist and get some x-rays done. Not because he has any dental problems but because he is accused of killing three men during a Minneapolis convenience store robbery this past January. He and his friend Ahmed Ali apparently entered the Seward Market one evening, guns in hand. Mahdi forced the two men there to lie on the floor, all this taking place in front of the store’s security camera. While his friend was near the rear of the store attempting to rob someone else, Mahdi shot the two men and a third man who walked in the door. He is now charged with three counts of first-degree murder.

His defense attorneys claim that Mahdi Ali was only 15 at the time of the shooting and not 16 as was previously documented. They state that he was born on August 25, 1995 in Kenya and that this would’ve made him only 15 at the time to the shootings. This is critical since if he were only 15 he will be tried as a juvenile, but if he was 16, he will be tried as an adult and if convicted will be subject to a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Big stakes.

So Mahdi will trot off to the dentist for dental x-rays to help determine his age. But there are a few problems with this. Yes both our deciduous (temporary or juvenile) teeth and our permanent teeth do tend to develop in a known and fairly predictable pattern. Our various types of teeth appear at certain ages and are lost as permanent teeth develop on their own timeline. Taking dental x-rays in this teenage group can often help determine the age of the person. Here’s the rub — it’s not all that accurate.

If you just look at the age at which the eruption of wisdom teeth occurs, it can vary by as much as five years. Some people get their wisdom teeth early and others see them late. We’re all different. In this case we’re looking at only a few months that would straddle Mahdi’s 15th and 16th years. It will be interesting to see what the experts say in this case and how accurate they will attempt to be. The bottom line is that determining whether someone’s age is 15 years and 10 months versus 16 years and three months is almost impossible. Stay tuned.



More Raising the Dead: Making Zombies

Let’s talk about Zombie Powder. Yes, Zombie Powder. Yes, it’s real. Yes, it will create a Zombie. Of sorts. Not really the living dead but something like it.

Zombie Powder is the toxin of the Pufferfish (Arothron meleagris), also called the Blowfish. The toxin is called Tetrodotoxin or TTX.  It is in the family of toxins that we call Paralytic Shellfish Poisons or PSPs. TTX can also be found in the California Newt and the Blue-ringed Octopus. Other PSPs would include Saxitoxin, found in shellfish such as muscles and clams, and Ciguatoxin, found in tropical fish such and groupers, snappers, and sea bass. Similar intoxications can follow the growth of certain algae during “red tides.

These toxins are classified as neurotoxins in that they alter the neurological system of the body. They interfere with electrical transmission to the muscles and this results in weakness and paralysis, numbness and tingling, slow and shallow respiration, an inability to speak, and a slow and weak pulse. Under these circumstances the victim can indeed appear dead. With the respirations so slow and the pulse is so weak and the skin taking on a dusky color due to very low blood flow, it is easy to see that the victim would appear dead even though he was not.

But this condition does some fairly bad things to the brain. The low blood pressure and low respiration decrease the amount of oxygen going to the brain and this can result in permanent brain damage. We call this anoxic encephalopathy, which is a big word that means brain damage due to lack of oxygen supply. The results are almost a chemical frontal lobotomy. The victim can manifest all types of neurologic problems down the road but commonly the victim will have a flattening of the personality and a loss of cognitive ability. In other words he moves and talks very slowly and appears almost zombie-like. The surgical version of this happened to Jack Nicholson in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

The Japanese delicacy “fugu” derives its kick from TTX. Eating it is basically mild PSP poisoning. It gives the diner a flushed and tingly feeling. The fish must be prepared to perfection or it can be deadly. Kind of like gastronomic Russian Roulette. The chefs that do this are specially trained and licensed and even these guys screw up from time to time. You’ll rad about it int he paper every now and then when group of fugu enthusiasts die in a restaurant.

In Haiti, the toxin is used in certain VooDoo religious rituals and is also used in the “Zombification” of field workers. It can be sprinkled into the shoes of the victim or added to his food and takes effect in a few minutes or up to an hour or so. It absorbs through the skin or the GI tract.

Dr. Wade Davis is an expert in this. He was involved with the controversial movie “The Serpent and The Rainbow.” Rent it and watch it. Not a great movie but it might help you understand this powerful drug.

How to make a Zombie? you ask. Simple. Sprinkle some of the powder in the victim’s shoes. When he slips them on the next morning he will become dizzy, short of breath, weak, and collapse. Then, lay him in a shallow ditch, cover him with leaves, and come back in three days and “resurrect” him. He will be calm, controllable, and a good field worker. That’s often what an anoxic encephalopathy will do.

In the late 1980’s this happened to one of my patients, JIm (not his real name). Jim owned a truck axle factory in Haiti. Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier wanted it but Jim refused to sell. So, Baby Doc had some of his Tonton Macoute goons Zombie-ize–is that a word?–Jim and took the factory. It took the US State Dept a month to get him out of Haiti. He later appeared on NBC News and on Nightline to discuss his experiences with Baby Doc. One of his most vivid memories of that time was awakening on the hard cold floor of a 300-year-old prison, stretched out on the mat, with a rat chewing on one of his numbed feet. He later was so brain-damaged that he could not keep a job. He could walk and talk and perform daily activities normally but he could not think things through and running a business was out of the question. He was however a gifted artist and drew some wonderful pen and ink drawings of his ordeal.

So if you want to use TTX in one of your stories, where would your bad guy get it? Haiti for sure. Or perhaps in the Algiers area of New Orleans where VooDoo is still practiced.


Raising the Dead

Noelia Serna was rushed to a hospital in Cali, Colombia after suffering a heart attack. She was 45 years old and also suffered from multiple sclerosis. She was admitted to the intensive care unit in critical condition but survived for only 10 hours. She was pronounced dead and transported to the funeral home for burial preparation. So far so good.

Approximately two hours later, attendant Jaime Aullon was preparing to inject the embalming fluid when he noticed Noelia move her right arm. I would suspect that freaked him out. It turns out that she was indeed still alive. I’m not sure what ultimately happened to Noelia since I could not find any more information on the story but it does raise an interesting question as to how does one go about determining the presence of death.

This has been a problem throughout history. Prior to the advent of the EKG, which is a method of determining whether there is cardiac electrical activity or not, determining death was not always straightforward. Any disease process, such as the heart attack that Noelia suffered, where the heart rate and blood pressure are very low, can be mistaken for death. The victim’s breathing is shallow and weak, the pulse is slow and virtually undetectable, and the skin takes on a dusky hue. Under these circumstances the victim indeed appears dead. This can happen with all forms of shock such as after a heart attack, a serious infection, or a drug overdose.

An EKG can help determine death but not uncommonly the heart continues to have some electrical activity after death and this can sometimes linger for many minutes if not hours. It’s odd to see an intensive care unit patient who is essentially dead with no pulse, no blood pressure, no heart sounds through a stethoscope, and no brain activity but still with electrical impulses bouncing across the screen. It happens. We call this electro-mechanical dissociation. There is electrical activity but no resultant mechanical beating of the heart.

Back in the 16th and 17th centuries, there were no EKGs, no stethoscopes to listen for heart beats, and no real method for determining death. So situations such as arose with Noelia were not uncommon. Several unique and bizarre techniques were devised. Tobacco smoke enemas, vigorous nipple pinching either manually or with pliers, hot pokers shoved into various bodily orifices, and aggressive tongue pulling were all used to determine if the “corpse” was truly dead. Tongue pulling was so popular that a device was developed that clamped the tongue and yanked it in and out when a crank was turned. This continued for several hours and, when the victim didn’t complain, a pronouncement of death occurred. As you would guess, the occasional “corpse” rose from the dead during such procedures.

Many physicians of that era felt that the only true way to ascertain death was to await the appearance of putrefaction. Since families preferred not having rotting corpses in the house, a system of “vitae dubiae asylums” or “waiting mortuaries,” was established. The suspected dead person would be placed in a warm spot (to hasten the decomposition) in these institutions until decay appeared, after which they could be buried. If they were indeed alive, they could signal this by pulling on a string, which was attached to a bell. Since corpses can manifest twitches and jerks from involuntary contractions of the decomposing muscles, false alarms were not uncommon. A disconcerting event to the person charged with overseeing the mortuary, I would suspect.


Name That SEM Sample Contest

On January 30th the folks from the ASPEX Team were my guest bloggers and discussed Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM). They offered readers the opportunity to submit samples for scanning and according to them many of you did. Now they are running a weekly contest called Name That Sample where you can attempt to identify a sample that has been scanned by an electron microscope. It’s amazing what the world looks like on that scale. The winner gets a new Netbook. We could all use one of those. Try your luck. It’s fun and you just might win.


Blood Shouts: Review of Blood Secrets by Katherine Ramsland

On June 12, 1994, a barking dog in the exclusive Brentwood enclave of Los Angeles alerted a neighbor to a scene that would soon garner headlines around the world: the double homicide of a young waiter, Ronald Goldman, and Nicole Brown Simpson, former wife of football great O. J. Simpson. Police went to Simpson’s home to check on his welfare and noted a bloodstain on the door of his white Ford Bronco. A trail of blood led up to the house, but Simpson had just flown to Chicago. When questioned, he denied having anything to do with it, although a fresh cut on his hand proved suspicious. Then several droplets of blood at the scene failed to show a match with Brown or Goldman. Their killer had cut himself.

Simpson’s blood was drawn for testing, which indicated that the unknown blood had three factors in common with Simpson’s and that only one person in 57 billion could produce an equivalent match. In addition, the blood was found near footprints made by a rare and expensive type of shoe—O. J.’s size. Next to the bodies was a bloodstained black leather glove that bore traces of fiber from Goldman’s jeans, and it matched a bloody glove found that night on his property. Traces of blood from both victims were lifted from it, as well as from inside Simpson’s car and house, along with blood that contained his DNA. His blood and Goldman’s were found mixed together on the car’s console. Simpson was arrested and charged.

Forensic serologists at the California Department of Justice, along with a private contractor, did the sophisticated DNA testing. Three crime labs determined that the DNA in the drops of blood at the scene matched Simpson’s.

Nevertheless, at Simpson’s trial the following year, criminalist Dr. Henry Lee testified that there appeared to be something wrong with the way the blood was packaged, leading the defense to propose that samples had been switched, blood had been planted, and the improper storage had degraded the samples past the point of accuracy.

The jury acquitted Simpson, and over a dozen books came out during the late 1990s from both sides to analyze the case.

Now, Rod Englert, a 46-year veteran of law enforcement, a homicide investigator, and an expert in blood spatter pattern analysis, has published Blood Secrets (St. Martin’s Press, April 2010; $25.99, co-wrtten with Kathy Passero). Among the many case evaluations he includes is the one he performed for the O. J. Simpson investigation. When assistant DA Marcia Clark invited his opinion, she told him “The crime is a goldmine for blood spatter analysis.”

Englert inspected every aspect of the crime and every significant surface and material, making fifteen separate trips to LA. He noted that almost all of the smears and spatters at the scene were sixteen inches from the ground or lower, which told him that the victims were on the ground when most of the bloodshed occurred. He surmised that Brown had been knocked unconscious and thus had not struggled with her attacker. The lack of blood on the bottom of her bare feet confirmed this. Goldman, on the other hand, had put up an enormous fight, fending off an aggressive knife attack. Because the back of his shirt was ripped but there were no wounds on his back, the killer “had wrenched Goldman’s shirt around almost backward in his effort to hang on to his victim.”

With blood evidence and information about the victims’ positions, Englert brainstormed with the team and reconstructed the scenario as this: “The killer had moved back and forth between his victims after they were incapacitated,” probably to ensure they were both dead. Before he fled, he cut Brown’s throat and punctured Goldman’s abdomen. It was also clear to Englert, after he ran several experiments with dogs, that Brown’s agitated Akita had probably walked through the blood, pawed at her, and possibly brushed against her in a protective stance.

Although Clark had expected Englert to testify, he took the stand. In this book, he provides the account he would have told the courtroom, as well as a quick assessment of what should the jury should have learned.

Just how Englert became a blood spatter analyst is, in itself, an unusual tale. To get readers there, he first describes his experience as a rookie cop, which led to his interest in learning how crime scenes are reconstructed.  Owning a cattle business on the side, he had a ready-made lab, as long as one could think outside the box…er, stall. He had cow’s blood, as much as he wanted, and a large barn to spatter it in. This chapter is well worth the read for any forensic scientist, if only to admire Englert’s innovations. “I dribbled blood from my fingertips,” he writes, “from the points of knives, and from holes in plastic garbage bags dragged across the barn floor. I tried the same tests on cement, gravel, dirt, sand, grass, wood and carpet to find out how the trails of blood differed….I made notes about how the blood got absorbed or distorted…” He shot into the blood with different types of guns, hit puddles of blood with bats, hammers, and boards, and scrutinized fine mist, thick drops, and cast-off patterns. He also wore different types of clothing to see how blood soaked into various materials.

Interpreting blood spatter patterns is a both a science and an art, but it can’t be fully learned from books. It requires practical hands-on experience and plenty of it. The shape of a blood drop can reveal a lot about the conditions in which it flew and fell, and Englert lays out the peculiar physics of blood spatter. When force is applied, for example, the amount of blood, shape of the drops, angle of impact, and location of a spatter at the crime scene will indicate everything from its velocity to the type of weapon used to how many people were involved. Blood with more weight travels farther, and it only travels so far in a straight line before it curves downward.

Bloodstain patterns help the investigators understand the positions and the means by which a victim and suspect moved, interacted, and possibly struggled through the scene. Investigators can then look for fingerprints, footprints, hairs, fibers and other forms of trace evidence. “I work my way backward through the chapters,” Englert writes “who, what, when, where, and how—until at last I reach the first page and find out how the story began.” In addition, an accurate reconstruction helps investigators determine which of witness and/or suspect is telling the truth.

Back to the Simpson case. Englert was certain that the blood evidence had provided “incontrovertible proof that Simpson had murdered Nicole Brown and Ronald Goldman.” He offers details, one item at a time, to back up his statement, focusing on Simpson’s socks, Goldman’s shoes, and Simpson’s car. He insists that despite claims of blood being planted, no one could plant that much blood spatter authentically enough to fool an experienced analyst. Englert fully demonstrates why this is so. “Truth,” he says, “got lost in the circus.”

In this engaging and readable book, Englert includes many different types of cases, some involving celebrities, some with a vexing mystery, and some from long ago, including a bullet trajectory analysis from the 1863 battle at Gettysburg.  He even admits to his errors, but the point of this book is to lay out the general process of blood spatter pattern analysis and show how each case has its own individual twists.

Ann Rule wrote the foreword and it’s clear that she’s familiar with Englert’s approach. She rightly says that “most of us involved in the circle of forensic science experts know one another…we are a motley crew, a fraternity who studies the blackest side of human nature and manages to find justice for victims of crimes and the truth for their survivors.” In fact, Englert has been involved in some of the cases about which Rule has written, and she had encouraged him to write a book. It’s no wonder that she’s pleased with the result.

There aren’t many casebooks available within the specific framework of blood spatter analysis; most are textbooks. Thus, Blood Secrets is different. It’s a full story about the life of a man who became an expert in one of crime’s most complex forms of evidence, and his analysis on many of the cases he’s worked. Thus, he gives readers a human side as much as an educational source – there’s something for true crime readers as well as for experts in the field. Blood spatter forensics has become an essential part of crime analysis, and the blood of victims will speak volumes about what happened to them when they can no longer speak for themselves.

Dr. Katherine Ramsland chairs the Department of Social Sciences at DeSales University in Pennsylvania, where she teaches forensic psychology and graduate-level criminal justice.


Posted by on April 13, 2010 in Blood Analysis, Guest Blogger


The Rural South

Finally back from a trip back to my roots. Had a wonderful time in my hometown Huntsville, AL. The crime writers workshops, book launch party, and library fund raiser went well and I saw many old friends and made some new ones. Even got an invite from NASA to come back early next year and speak at a forensic/CSI event they are planning. Can’t wait. Love those folks at NASA.

Afterward, we headed off on a book research trip across the back roads of the rural south. The third book in my Dub Walker series, which I’m currently working on, will have scenes in Georgia and North Carolina. We traveled only two-lane blacktops, no freeways, through North Alabama and Georgia, and Southwestern North Carolina, ending in Asheville at the Biltmore Inn. Saw some incredible and not exactly unfamiliar sites. Reminded me of my childhood.

Great valleys such as:

The Paint Rock Valley, between Huntsville and Scottsboro, where I hunted and fished with my Dad on many occasions and where Curley Putman wrote the famous song, The Green Green Grass of Home.

And this beautiful valley near Crabtree, NC.

Lakes like Guntersville Lake where I learned to waterski:

And Lake Burton in Georgia:

Cool small towns like Dahlonega, GA:

And Black Mountain, NC:

Interesting people such as an Amish man and his son in Georgia:

Small general stores like this one in Fines Creek, NC:

And those roadside signs that are such a Southern tradition. Some jabbed into the ground and others painted on trucks:


Posted by on April 11, 2010 in Misc, Writing

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