Category Archives: Cause & Manner of Death

Q and A: What Happens If My character Is Shot in the Abdomen With a Crossbow?

Q: My question is if a female victim, age 17-18, had a penetrating wound to the far left side of the abdomen just below the ribs, extending 2-3 inches max into the body, what organs if any would be hit and would there be any internal bleeding (if so what major arteries/veins)? The weapon is a barbed crossbow bolt that prevents manual removal. And for the internal bleeding would cauterization be possible without lasting effects? Also, what would be the estimated recovery time for this injury (victim able to walk without assistance)?

Rachel from TN


A: There are many possibilities and in fact there are hundreds of possible outcomes here. In the left upper quadrant of the abdomen the most likely structures that would be impacted would be the spleen, the pancreas, and the bowel. It is possible that an object that only embedded two or 3 inches into the body would not strike any organs but would rather be more or less a flesh wound. In this case she would be fine and able to do anything with some pain in the area of course. The only real danger here would be an infection in the wound but this would take many days to develop and many more days to become a true medical problem.

On the other hand the bolt could penetrate into the abdomen and this would be much more painful and there could be some bleeding within the abdomen which would cause a more or less diffuse pain throughout the abdomen which would be worse with movement, running, coughing, and almost any other activity. This pain would be sharp rather than a dull ache. Once again her life would not be in danger unless a secondary infection followed and she should be able to do most things though again with considerable discomfort.

If the spleen were punctured, they would be a great deal of internal bleeding and it could even be enough to cause her to slip into shock and die. Or she could simply lose a great deal of blood can be very weak and short of breath with

any activity but survived. Here the bleeding could stop as the wound in the spleen clotted and she could recover without any major intervention. Again if no infection followed.

If she punctured a pancreas then the pancreatic digestive juices would be released in the abdomen and cause what we call peritonitis – the inflammation of the lining of the abdomen. This would be extremely painful with almost any movement are activity and this discomfort would be spread throughout the abdomen. Here a secondary infection is

very high. Would she be able to do most things? Probably but this would be even more painful than the injuries described above.

If the bolt penetrated a bowel then the leakage of bowel contents in the abdomen would cause an infected peritonitis. This would be extremely painful and deadly without fairly quick surgical intervention. The bowel contents are loaded with nasty bacteria and once they entered the abdominal cavity they would begin to grow and inflame the peritoneum,

causing a severe infectious peritonitis. Here the pain would be worse but she could still move around and do things if she were tough. Within a couple of days the infection would be severe and she would have high fevers, chills, severe abdominal pain, and would ultimately slip in the shock and die from what we call septicemia – an infection in the bloodstream.

Cautery is simply the burning of the tissues and really has no place here as it causes more damage than help. The reason is that with a bolt such as this weapon there would be very little external bleeding in the cautery he could only be used to control that. It could do nothing for the internal bleeding. To control any external bleeding simply applying pressure with a towel, the piece of clothing, wadded up paper, or anything she had handy would stop the external bleeding.


Posted by on October 20, 2015 in Cause & Manner of Death, Q&A, Trauma


Suicide By Text

You can’t think about it.

You just have to do it. 

You said you were gonna do it. 

Like I don’t get why you aren’t.

Michelle Carter

So texted Michelle Carter to Conrad Roy, her 18-year-old boyfriend. And there were many other texts to follow. She goaded him to commit suicide, or at least that’s what prosecutors are alleging. And now she faces trial on an involuntary manslaughter charge. This will be an interesting trial particularly in regards to who is responsible for Conrad Roy’s death. There’s no doubt it was by his own hand, but is Michelle Carter culpable because she encouraged him to commit the act?

But this isn’t exactly new. In 1816, long before there was texting, George Bowen was charged with “murder by counseling.” It seems he was an inmate and convinced Jonathan Jewett, a convicted murderer who occupied the adjacent cell adjacent, to hang himself. Apparently Jewett did and Bowen was charged with encouraging his suicide.

So it seems there is nothing new after all.


Bad Air: Sewer Gas and Death


Bad air will kill you. One form of bad air is Sewer Gas. It’s a combination of hydrogen sulfide, methane, ammonia, and carbon dioxide. If you enter a sewer or manure pit or some area where these gases are concentrated, you can be a goner is short order. Breathing this combination of gases can kill, and can do so quickly.

This is what happened to Iowa hog farmers Gene and Austin Opheim. Austin went into the manure pit to salvage a piece of equipment that had fallen in, but he was quickly overcome by the gas. HIs father, Gene followed, trying to save his son, but he too fell victim to this treacherous gas.




Hydrogen sulfide is a byproduct of fermentation and is often found in sewers and cesspools. The combination of the two toxic gases hydrogen sulfide and carbon monoxide and the suffocating gas methane is called sewer gas. When inhaled or ingested, hydrogen sulfide converts oxyhemoglobin (hemoglobin rich in oxygen) into methemoglobin, which does not release oxygen to the tissues, thus effectively suffocating the cells of the body. Methemoglobin imparts a dark purple color to the blood, which can be seen at autopsy, where the ME is also likely to fi nd high levels of sulfide in the blood of sewer gas victims. These deaths are almost always accidental and occur when the victim enters an area rich in sewer gas.

Howdunnit Forensics Cover


Q and A: Can a Crochet Hook Be Used For Murder?

Q: I’m wanting the victim in my next mystery novel to be murdered with a crochet hook. The attacker and victim would be facing each other. The hook would be grabbed off a table and could be either hook end out the thumb side of the hand or out the pinky side of the hand (depending on what you would determine to be the easiest for delivering a fatal blow). It is an impulsive act. The victim is a 5ft. 11in., 157lb. female. Murderer is a 6ft. 1in., 298lb. male. He is a chef.

What would be the most likely spots for inflicting a fatal wound? Would the hook need to be removed (the victim bleeds out)? Can the hook be left in and the wound still fatal?

The hook is a size F 3.75mm crochet hook made of Brazilian bloodwood by the Furls Fiberarts company. I know the different woods they use have different strengths as some do not come in the smaller diameter sizes. (For example: the olivewood hooks start at 4.00mm while the blackwood starts at 3.25mm.)

Pearl R. Meaker, Lincoln, IL.

Crochet Hooks

A: Since this style of hook is made of wood rather than metal, the attack would have to be to a relatively “soft” area. Not likely this could penetrate the chest and reach the heart or get thru the skull without breaking or shattering. But grabbing the thick end and using the pointed (hooked) end as the weapon could prove deadly.

Two areas could work:

The eye–the skull behind the eye is thin and fairly easily penetrated. So a stab to either eye could reach the brain cavity and cause bleeding into and around the brain that could prove deadly. Here there would be some external bleeding from the eye wound but most would be internal within the skull. Here it makes little difference whether the

device is removed or left in place after the attack.

The carotid arteries—there are 2 carotid arteries–one on each side of the neck in the soft area on either side of the trachea–windpipe. This device could easily penetrate one of them. These arteries supply 90% of the blood to the brain. If punctured, the blood would spurt out in great pulses. Here it would be best if the device were yanked back

out after the stab so the blood would have a clear path.

In either case, the victim could die in a couple of minutes or, in the eye stabbing scenario, it could take some time—even 30 to 90 minutes or longer. Anything is possible.


Plants, Poisons, and Political Murder

Russian millionaire businessman Alexander Perepilichnyy and Chinese billionaire Long Liyuan might have something in common. A pretty but deadly plant. The plant in question is Gelsemium. Long used as a homeopathic treatment, it is in fact a deadly poison.

Alexander Perepilichnyy

In 2012, Perepilichnyy collapsed and died at his home, his death was sudden and unexpected. These things do happen, but when they happen to someone who was scheduled to testify in a fraud case against a Russian tax official and who had apparently been receiving death threats after his whistle-blowing, it gives one pause.

Traces of the toxins found in the Gelsemium plant, also called woodbine, were revealed in Mr. Perepilichnyy’s stomach contents and even though the death was officially attributed to natural causes—-and indeed it might have been—the possibility of this being a murder by way of plant poison exists.

I mean, it’s not like the Russian’s haven’t done this before. Remember Alexander Litvinenko? Polonium did him in.


And then there is Mr. Long Liyuan. Seems he was involved in a case where a local Guangdong province official, Huang Guang, was accused of embezzling from Mr. Long. On the day of his death, Long dined on a local delicacy—-cat meat stew. He then became dizzy, nauseated, collapsed, and died. His dinner companion apparently ate only a little of the stew because it tasted “more bitter” than usual and he survived. Gelsemium is the suspect poison in this case.

Long Liyuan

Gelsemium is a flowering plant in the family Gelsemiaceae and its major toxin is the alkaloid Gelsemine. It’s effects are primarily neurological and cardiovascular with headache, blurred vision, swallowing difficulty, dizziness, shortness of breath, slow heart rate, seizures, and ultimately death. Pleasant, huh?



Q and A: Can DNA Be Used To Identify Multiple Assailants In a Three Decade Old Rape?

Q: Was it possible in 1969 (or even today for that matter) to determine if a woman found dead in sub-zero temperatures was raped by more than one assailant. If so, how could this be accomplished? Could a pathologist conclude that the woman was raped, as opposed to consensual intercourse, even if there is an absence of physical evidence such as bruising? What language would the pathologist employ when writing his conclusions?  Could evidence from 1969 be preserved (how would it be preserved?) and used today to identified suspects through DNA testing?


A: DNA for testing comes from the genetic material found in the nuclei of the body’s cells. Essentially every cell in the body contains a nucleus. The notable exception is the Red Blood Cells (RBCs), which do not contain nuclei. But, White Blood Cells (WBCs) do. DNA testing of blood tests the DNA found in the nuclei of the WBCs.

Adequate DNA samples for testing have been gleaned from semen stains, bite marks, sweat, sputum, hair, and saliva. Even from the saliva left behind by licking a stamp or sealing an envelope. In the case of saliva from stamps or bites, the DNA tested comes from the cells that line the mouth (called buccal cells), which are constantly shed into the saliva. Hair does not contain cells and thus no DNA, but hair follicles do. A single hair follicle may yield enough DNA for testing.

As you can see, very small samples might be enough.

DNA is a fairly hardy molecule and survives time, freezing, drying, mixing with other materials, and many other adverse circumstances. It does not survive heating, however. Heat denatures, or destroys, the DNA strands. It is important to note that DNA testing does not require intact cells, merely intact DNA. This means that clotted blood, dried semen, and tissue fragments found under victims’ fingernails might yield enough DNA for conclusive testing.

The sub-zero temperatures in your scenario would serve to protect the DNA and would thus help the coroner by preserving better samples for his evaluation.

Yes, he would be able to determine that there had been two assailants, since each would have his own distinctive DNA pattern. The finding of two different DNA patterns in the semen sample obtained from the victim would prove this and when the suspects were apprehended, each could be matched to his own contribution to that sample. Mixing the semen would not alter this finding in any way since each DNA strand would be unchanged. It’s not like mixing blue paint with yellow paint to make green paint but rather like mixing a bunch of tiny blue beads with tiny yellow beads. From a distance, they might appear as though they had melted together to form a green mixture, but on close examination, each tiny bead would be seen to have remained intact and separate. DNA strands don’t “melt” into one another.

DNA can last for years, decades, even centuries. It has been found in Egyptian mummies, exhumed bodies, and samples stored from very old crimes. Recently, DNA evidence linked Gary Leon Ridgway to the famous string of prostitute murders know as the Green River Murders in Washington State. The DNA evidence connected him to murders that occurred in the early 1980s. This was possible because the DNA was handled and stored properly. Typically, the sample is dried and placed in a non-reactive container such as a glass vial.

The problem of determining if a rape occurred is a question for the jury. Rape is not a medical term, but rather a legal term. The coroner could determine if penetration occurred and if semen was present. If he found trauma to the vagina or to other body parts that might suggest the victim was struck or restrained, he might conclude that in his opinion the intercourse was not consensual. Still, it would require a judge or a jury to determine whether a rape occurred or not.

Published in Suspense Magazine December, 2014


Hacking Pacemakers For Murder No Longer the Perfect Crime

Pacemakers can be hacked but that’s not news. We’ve known that for a while.


Newer models are even easier to hack than were the older models. Progress being what it is. Most pacemakers are interrogated and adjusted in the doctor’s office or the Pacemaker Clinic by placing a “wand” over the pacemaker and then using an attached computer to retrieve data stored inside and/or change the parameters of the pacemaker—-changing sensing, pacing thresholds and rates, that sort of thing. Many newer models allow for more remote access—-from several feet away. Think “blue tooth” for a pacemaker.



This more “remote” access allows for hacking to take place without direct contact with the patient. The pacemaker can be changed, even turned off, which in someone who is “pacemaker dependent” for their heartbeats can be catastrophic, even deadly. Fortunately most pacemaker recipients are NOT pacer dependent so even if the device is turned off they would still do fine. Maybe a bit weak, tired, and dizzy, but not dead from heart stoppage.

Now it seems that, though this can still be done, traces are left behind. Makes getting away with such tampering more difficult.

Guess you crime writers will have to find another way to off your characters who have pacemakers.


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