Q and A: Can My ME Distinguish Death From Asphyxia From Death Due to Head Trauma?

13 May

Q: Here’s my book situation: A man puts a plastic bag over his head to kill himself. His wife wakes up next to him (after he nearly strangled her to death and she discovers he’s killed their son) and in her horror and rage cracks him over the head with a blunt object.

Here’s my question: Can the police/coroner/forensics determine which was the cause of death–suffocation or blunt force trauma? If so, what would the signs be pointing to asphyxiation?  Also, if it matters, this is set in 1969.

Judy Merrill Larsen, author of All the Numbers

A: If the victim died first from the asphyxia, the ME would have no problem since the blow to the head would cause no bruising or bleeding. At death the heart stops and blood flow ceases and a corpse will not bleed or bruise easily. So the ME would see a mark where the victim was struck but no bleeding or bruising and know that the blow was delivered post-mortem.

If he was still alive when struck, things become a little more difficult for the ME but he should still be able to tell. Bruising and bleeding at the site of the blunt trauma would show that the victim was alive when struck but if there is no significant brain injury found at autopsy he would know that the force of the blow did not cause death and the asphyxia must have. If there is a brain injury such as cerebral contusion (brain bruise) or bleeding into or around the brain, he might have difficulty determining the actual cause of death. Of course any evidence of blunt trauma would point to homicide and not suicide since someone using a plastic bag for suicide would not likely also strike themselves in the head.

But I see a bigger problem with your scenario. If she was unconscious from being strangled, she would wake up within 10 seconds to a minute or so after the pressure was released unless she had significant brain injury from lack of oxygen. If she were simply strangled into unconsciousness, which is due to blocking blood flow thru the carotid arteries to the brain and not blocking breathing, as soon as the pressure was released and blood flow reestablished, she would wake up very quickly. Much sooner than he could put a bag on his head and die from asphyxia. For her to be out that long would require some degree of brain injury and I don’t think that’s what you want. Of course, if he drugged her first and then strangled her to the point he thought she was dead, but she in fact wasn’t, then she would awaken when the drug effect wore off. Here he could be dead for hours before she awakened.



4 responses to “Q and A: Can My ME Distinguish Death From Asphyxia From Death Due to Head Trauma?

  1. betsythompson777

    May 13, 2013 at 5:15 pm

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    May 14, 2013 at 2:14 pm

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    June 11, 2013 at 4:42 am

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  4. Kitty

    May 10, 2016 at 3:01 pm

    Me and my foster sisters dI’d this with a towl it took 30 seconds to pass out first you lose feeling then sound then sight then you black out when you wake back up again no sound no feeling just numbness vision is blury slowly ur sound and vision comes back and then ur feeling so no they will not feel the pain if they choke and not broken there neck yes it’s very DANGEROUS but just think about who you leave behind even if it’s so hard….. even if you want to give up fuck the people live free fuck everything and have fun move if you need to I know what happens I felt the dark place and it’s really not worth it I say fuck the law and fuck the people who talks shit they only have there own problems and are jelose what you got I see my brother as a tough man who was so brave to stand up to everything he had alot of fun and did not give a crap about nothing but my mum turned against him and he forgot me that is why he fucked up he did not know!! So think before you do something stupid to ur own self maybe ur baby sister needs to deal with no bro any more



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