Monthly Archives: October 2013

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.





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.


Book Review: Light Of The World by James Lee Burke



Light of the World by James Lee Burke

560 pages

Simon & Schuster

July 23, 2013

ISBN-10: 1476710767

ISBN-13: 978-1476710761

“…the characters rise to haunt you long after you read the final page.”

Full disclosure here: I’m a fanatic James Lee Burke fan so am biased toward anything he writes. I’ve followed his tales of Louisiana bayou homicide detective Dave Robicheaux from The Neon Rain to the latest and 20th installment in the series Light Of The World. Each book is a lesson in literary crime writing but LOTW is one of the best.


The theme of this story is evil. Pure unadulterated evil. Does it exist as a tangible object? A living, breathing entity? Is it buried deeply in each of us? Does it dwell in the hearts of some more than others? Light Of The World is a story of revenge, violence, corruption, and ultimately how one copes with the presence of raw evil in human form.

Or as Dave says:

I was never good at solving mysteries. I don’t mean the kind cops solve or the ones you read about in novels or watch on television or on a movie screen. I’m not talking about the mystery of Creation, either, or the unseen presences that reside perhaps just the other side of the physical world. I’m talking about evil, without capitalization but evil all the same, the kind whose origins sociologists and psychiatrists have trouble explaining.

Thus begins Light Of The World.

Dave, along with wife Molly and lawyer/novelist daughter Alafair, as well as former partner Clete Purcel, travel to the wilds near Missoula, Montana for a little R and R. All is well until an arrow flies from nowhere and nearly kills Alafair while she is on a mountain jog. To Dave, the most likely suspect is Wyatt Dixon, an ex rodeo champion and felon, who reprises from Bitterroot (2001) but other suspects quickly jump up on Dave’s radar. One, the sexual sadist and convicted serial killer Asa Surrette, who apparently died in an explosive prison transport van crash. Or did he? Could he have survived? Somehow escaped from the mangled, charred vehicle? Alafair has no doubts. She has seen his face, in town, following her. Dave isn’t convinced. Could Surrette not only be alive but be hell-bent on exacting revenge against Alafair, for whom he holds a deep-seated hatred after she wrote a series of articles blaming him for other crimes? Can Dave protect her from such a relentless force?

Perhaps the most interesting character in the story is Gretchen Horowitz, Clete’s estranged daughter, introduced in Creole Belle (2012). A former contract killer for mob types, she is now reinventing herself as a documentary film maker. A fascinating and deep character with a history, she enters the fray in a no-brakes, in-your-face fashion. Smart, tough, and relentless, she employs her own brand of violence to protect herself, and Alafair.

This story is written in James Lee Burke’s usual style. Richly poetic writing mixed with down and dirty storytelling. The setting comes alive, the story drags you along at a breathless pace, and the characters rise to haunt you long after you read the final page. Classic JLB.

Original review for the NYJournal of Books:



Posted by on October 25, 2013 in Book Review, Writing


Surgery For Criminal Tendencies

The belief that altering the brain and its function can either lead to or ameliorate criminal tendencies has been around for a long time. It might date back thousands of years to when trepanning was used. Skulls found in Central America tend to point to the use of this technique by the Mayans and the Aztecs and some have postulated that it might’ve been done to treat madness or other behavioral abnormalities. Of course it could have been part of religious ritual also or even used for medical treatment after head injury. We just don’t know for sure.


Trepanning involves the drilling of holes through the skull

Trepanning involves the drilling of holes through the skull


In the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in February, 1913, the case of a criminal who underwent surgery to correct his behavior was reported. It seems that a young man who was incarcerated for his criminal activity had been a normal child until approximately age 14 when he suffered a head injury. After that he became “morose, sullen and a thief.” Examination revealed that he had a “thickening underneath the scalp at the point where he had been injured.” Surgery was then performed to remove this section of bone and apparently his behavior immediately changed. It changed so much that the governor offered him parole and he was released.

Unfortunately, recidivism being what it is, he returned to his criminal ways and was again arrested. The article goes on to point out that during the Civil War there were many soldiers who suffered penetrating head wounds and yet only rarely did they suffer from “perversions of character.”

Indeed there have been cases where individuals have had brain tumors and their personality has changed dramatically, even to the point of violent acting out. In such circumstances removal of the brain tumor has often resulted in a resolution of the personality change. But the search for a surgical solution to social traffic behavior remains elusive and indeed there is no evidence that any procedure makes much difference. At least as far as we know in 2013. Who knows what the future will hold.




Perhaps the most famous use of a surgical technique to alter behavior comes from the fictional world. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the movie as well as the excellent book by Ken Kesey, is the story of McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), a man who fights the system and is determined to be a threat to society, or at least the inner workings of the mental hospital where he is housed, and is ultimately subjected to a personality altering frontal lobotomy. The fact that this type of surgery was also going on in the real world is well-documented.




Crime & Science Radio: Judging Evidence

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Crime & Science Radio: Judging Evidence: Jan Burke Interviews Marcia Clark

Join Jan Burke and former prosecutor Marcia Clark, author of KILLER AMBITION for a discussion on rules of evidence and how new scientific technologies become accepted by courts, what can go wrong to keep evidence out of a trial, and some of the ways forensic science is used in the plots of her legal thrillers.




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“I have to admit it was a great read. I thoroughly enjoyed it.”

I didn’t say this—though I agree. But then I’m a bit biased.

But I’m thrilled that Tom Nelson, Director of the Forensic Services at the Scottish Police Service Authority (SPSA) enjoyed it.



Posted by on October 15, 2013 in General Forensics, Writing


Crime and Science Radio: Drugs, Poisons, Toxins, and Death

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DP Lyle, MD discusses several famous cases that involve the use of drugs and poisons and reveals the toxicological principles behind each case. Kristen Rossum and the American Beauty Murder, Stella Nickell’s product tampering, and the complex issues surrounding Kurt Cobain’s death are some of the topics to be discussed.




Forensic Toxicology: Wikipedia

WSJ: Poison and Progress

Toxipedia: Toxicology Timeline

Kristin Rossum: Wikipedia

Murderpedia: Kristin Rossum

CBS 48 Hours: American Beauty (2009)

Stella Nickell: Wikipedia

Murderpedia: Stella Nickell

People: Killing Her Husband Wasn’t Enough for Stella Nickell; to Make Her Point, She Poisoned a Stranger,,20099360,00.html

CBS 48 Hours: Bitter Pill: A Wife on Trial

Find-em: Stella M. Nickell Case

Kurt Cobain: Wikipedia

Death of Kurt Cobain: Wikipedia Kurt Cobain

Justice For Kurt Kurt Cobain: Murder or Suicide? The Truth About the Nirvana Enigma

Youtube: Kurt Cobain: Death Conspiracy

Youtube: Nirvana Kurt Cobain’s Death Documentary

Ryder Salmen Dies From Drug-laced Mother’s Milk:



Book Review: Bad Monkey by Carl Haissen

Bad Monkey JPEG



Bad Monkey by Carl Hiaasen

336 pages


June 11, 2013

ISBN-10: 0307272591

ISBN-13: 978-0307272591

“. . . a fun, fast read and a wild ride.”

BAD MONKEY is vintage Hiaasen. A quirky protagonist, surrounded by even quirkier characters, mired in odd-ball intrigue, in South Florida, of course. This story revolves around Florida Keys detective Andrew Yancy, newly busted to the role of restaurant inspector, aka “roach patrol,” for attacking one Dr. Clifford Witt, husband of a former Yancy lover, with a hand-held Black & Decker vacuum cleaner. All videoed by cruise liner tourists with cell phones in hand. Yancy embarks on several hit and miss attempts to get his badge back. No easy proposition. Particularly since his boss, Sheriff Sonny Summers, opinion is that Yancy was lucky they didn’t “charge you with sodomy.”

But the warm waters off the Florida Keys offer up salvation in the form of a severed arm, middle finger extended as if to say, well you know. Seems the arm belonged to a wealthy crook, who scammed various medical insurance companies for millions, only to die in a boating accident, leaving the arm behind to be hooked by a tourist on a fishing charter. But in Hiaasen’s world things are never as they seem. Not even close.

The police want the missing arm case as well as a murder and a suicide (or not) to go quietly into the archives. But, Yancy doesn’t buy it. He sees nefarious activity in the shadows. And he has a plan. Solve the murder, disprove the suicide, and prove that the wife offed the arm’s previous owner. Or did she? Tie up all these loose ends and they’ll have to return his badge. Won’t they?

This story is totally Hiassen. It bounces around the Keys, South Florida, and the Bahamas. Reminiscent of his earlier works such as SKINNY DIP, STORMY WEATHER, and STRIP TEASE, BAD MONKEY is filled with easy one-liners, believably unbelievable occurrences, and odd ball characters: love interest Dr. Rosa Campesino, a medical examiner with a penchant for sex on the dissecting table; The Egg, a homicidal brute who has Yancy in his sites; the Dragon Queen, a Bahamian scooter-riding VooDoo witch who delights in kinky sex and casting black spells; and of course Driggs, the “bad monkey.” Bad doesn’t quite cover it. Maybe petulant, combative, or recalcitrant. No, vile. That’s the word. What else could you say about a monkey who attacks without warning and tends toward flinging excrement on a whim? Yeah, vile works.

As if all this didn’t fill Yancy’s plate, his neighbor is constructing a massive mansion that will block Yancy’s view of the water. Yancy’s attempts to waylay those plans are numerous and insane (in a Hiassen sort of way).

Through solving murders, tracking down folks who have gone missing, messing with his neighbor’s head, and avoiding The Egg and Driggs as best he can, Yancy attempts to develop a real relationship with the good Dr. Campesino.

You’ll need a scorecard to keep up with all the characters, many having a couple of aliases, and all the scams within scams, but the pages will fly by. For Hiaasen fans (like me) this book will cause more than a few laugh-out -loud moments and for new fans, welcome to his world. It’s a fun, fast read and a wild ride.

Original review for the NY Journal of Books:

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Posted by on October 10, 2013 in Book Review

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