RSS

Category Archives: Cause & Manner of Death

Chemical Assassinations: A Sordid History

Using chemicals for murder is not a new concept. It’s been around for many centuries. Socrates was killed with hemlock, and arsenic became so popular that it was known as “inheritance powder,” for obvious reasons. Chemicals have also been used in political assassinations.

Recently Kim Yong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, was apparently assassinated using Sarin. It seems that a pair of young ladies had the toxin on their hands and made contact with the victim, transferring the toxin, causing his death. The details of exactly how they pulled this off are unclear. One of the big questions is how did they avoid poisoning themselves? The first thought of course is that they wore latex surgical gloves or something similar but that doesn’t appear to be the case. The second thing that came to my mind is that maybe they placed a barrier such as petroleum jelly on their hands before applying the Sarin or VX but this doesn’t appear to be the case either – – and this would be a risky move. Many have speculated that they took the antidote for this poison ahead of time. This makes sense and is definitely possible.

Sarin and VX are organophosphates similar to many insecticides. They are also classified as anti-cholinesterases in that they bind with the enzyme cholinesterase and block its actions. Cholinesterase is essential for nerve transmission throughout the human body. It’s complex biochemistry but in the end this chemical causes widespread derangements in normal bodily functions.

The symptoms that result are numerous and include chest pain, shortness of breath, headache, nasal congestion, constricted pupils, nausea, anxiety, seizures, and ultimately death. The treatment for Sarin exposure is to employ chemicals that counteract or override this derangement. The most common ones are atropine, Pralidoxime, and lastly the sedative and anti-seizure drug diazepam.

It is entirely possible that the young ladies involved in this assassination had pretreated themselves with atropine and possibly Pralidoxime. In fact the US military has such antidotes prepackaged in an autoinjector that is known as Mark I NAAK – –NAAK stands for Nerve Agent Antidote Kit. This is the most likely explanation for how they pulled this off.

Political assassinations using chemicals are not new. In 2006 Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned with polonium 210 that had apparently been placed in his iced tea.

Litvinenko

Dioxin was the culprit in the damage to Viktor Yushchenko.

Yushchenko

Perhaps the most famous chemical assassination took place in 1978 when Georgi Markov was jabbed in the leg with a point of an umbrella. At first it seemed to be an accident, no big deal, a mere pin prick, but Markov’s health quickly declined and he ultimately died. It was later found that a tiny pellet containing ricin had been injected into his leg, supposedly by the KGB.

Markov and Pellet

Deadly chemicals have been around for many millennia and have been used many times to bring about the death of others, political or otherwise.

Advertisements
 

Q&A with Expanded Audio Discussions Now on the Suspense Magazine Website

Q&A with Expanded Audio Discussions Now on the Suspense Magazine Website

Check out the new posts John Raab of Suspense Magazine and I put together. Read the Q&As and listen to the expanded discussions. Hope each proves helpful for your crime fiction.

Can DNA Be Used To Identify Multiple Assailants In a Three Decade Old Rape?

http://suspensemagazine.com/blog2/2016/12/20/d-p-lyles-forensic-file-episode-1/

In 1863, Could An Autopsy Accurately Determine the Cause of Death?

http://suspensemagazine.com/blog2/2017/01/09/in-1863-could-an-autopsy-accurately-determine-the-cause-of-death-d-p-lyle-answers-this/

Can My Female Character Cause Her Pregnancy To Become “Stone Baby” By Shear Will?

http://suspensemagazine.com/blog2/2016/12/31/can-my-female-character-cause-her-pregnancy-to-become-stone-baby-by-sheer-will/

More to come.

Want more cool questions from crime writers? Check out my three Q&A books.

M&M 200X300

More Info and List of Included Questions

F&F200X302.jpg

More Info and List of Included Questions

MF&F 200X320

More Info and List of Included Questions

 

Sonny Liston: Cause and Manner of Death

sonny

Former Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston is best remembered from his two losses—first to Cassius Clay, then Muhammad Ali. Ali changed his name between the two fights. But Sonny was a tough guy. He ruled the heavyweight division with an iron hand. Until Ali burst of the scene anyway.

muhammad-ali-vs-sonny-liston

But Sonny was no match for the needle. The cause of his death is easy—-a heroin OD. But, the manner of death isn’t so apparent. A situation not uncommon in drug OD deaths.

The cause of death is what actually killed the person while then manner of death is the by whom and why. It basically comes down to—-by whose hand and for what purpose did the death occur?

The four (plus one) manners of death are: Natural, Accidental, Suicidal, Homicidal, and Undertermined—-the latter a fancy way of saying “I don’t have a clue.”

A heroin OD is not natural but can it be accidental, or suicidal, or homicidal? You bet. And it’s not always possible to determine the manner in heroin-related deaths.

FFD 300X378

FROM FORENSICS FOR DUMMIES:

Uncovering the four manners of death

The manner of death is the root cause of the sequence of events that leads to death. In other words, it answers these questions:

# How and why did these events take place?

# Who or what initiated the events and with what intention?

# Was the death caused by the victim, another person, an unfortunate occurrence, or Mother Nature?

The four manners of death are

Natural: Natural deaths are the workings of Mother Nature in that death results from a natural disease process. Heart attacks, cancers, pneumonias, and strokes are common natural causes of death. Natural death is by far the largest category of death that the ME sees, making up over half of the cases investigated.

Accidental: Accidental deaths result from an unplanned and unforeseeable sequence of events. Falls, automobile accidents, and in‐home electrocutions are examples of accidental deaths.

Suicidal: Suicides are deaths caused by the dead person’s own hand. Intentional, self‐inflicted gunshot wounds, drug overdoses, and self‐ hangings are suicidal deaths.

Homicidal: Homicides are deaths that occur by the hand of someone other than the dead person.

Undetermined or unclassified: These are deaths in which the ME can’t accurately determine the appropriate category.

Just as causes of death can lead to many different mechanisms of death, any cause of death can have several different manners of death. A gunshot wound to the head can’t be a natural death, but it can be deemed homicidal, suicidal, or accidental.

Though the ME can usually determine the manner of death, it’s not always easy, or even possible. For example, the manner of death of a drug abuser who overdoses is most likely to be either accidental or suicidal (it also could be homicidal, but it’s never natural). When the cause of death is a drug overdose, autopsy and laboratory findings are the same regardless of the victim’s or another’s intent. That is, the ME’s findings are the same whether the victim miscalculated the dose (accidental), intentionally took too much (suicidal), or was given a lethal dose (homicidal). For example, perhaps the victim’s dealer, thinking the user had snitched to the police, gave the victim a purer form of heroin than he was accustomed to receiving, so that his “usual” injection contained four or five times more drug than the unfortunate soul expected. Simply put, no certain way exists for determining whether the person overdosed accidentally, purposefully, or as the result of another’s actions. For these reasons, such deaths are often listed as Undetermined.

So was Sonny’s death an accident? A suicide? Or did the hand of another intervene and murder Sonny? We may never know.

Was Sonny Liston Murdered?: http://theundefeated.com/features/was-sonny-liston-murdered/

 

Q&A: Will a Decaying Corpse Actually Produce Alcohol?

whiskey glasses

 

Q: Is it possible or likely for blood alcohol levels to increase or decrease in a decomposing body, and if so during what stages of decomposition?

A: Alcohol is usually consumed in the decay process but may actually be produced and this might cloud any toxicological examinations on the corpse. Make it look as if the victim consumed more alcohol than he actually did.

I must point out that alcohol is not commonly produced but it does happen in rare cases. The alcohol is a byproduct of the action of some types of bacteria that are involved in the decay process. This means that alcohol can only appear during active decay. What is that time period? A little about putrefaction.

The decomposition of the human body involves two distinct processes: autolysis and putrefaction. Autolysis is basically a process of self-digestion. After death, the enzymes within the body’s cells begin the chemical breakdown of the cells and tissues. As with most chemical reactions the process is hastened by heat and slowed by cold. Putrefaction is the bacterially mediated destruction of the body’s tissues. It is this decay that might cause some alcohol formation. Not always, but sometimes. The responsible bacteria mostly come for the intestinal tract of the deceased, though environmental bacteria and yeasts contribute in many situations. Bacteria thrive in warm, moist environments and become sluggish in colder climes. Freezing will stop their activities completely. A frozen body will not undergo putrefaction until it thaws.

Under normal temperate conditions, putrefaction follows a known sequence. During the first 24 hours, the abdomen takes on a greenish discoloration, which spreads to the neck, shoulders, and head. Bloating follows. This is due to the accumulation of gas, a byproduct of the action of bacteria, within the body’s cavities and skin. This swelling begins in the face where the features swell and the eyes and tongue protrude. The skin will then begin to “marble.” This is a web-like pattern of the blood vessels over the face, chest, abdomen, and extremities. This pattern is green-black in color and is due to the reaction of the blood’s hemoglobin with hydrogen sulfide. As gasses continue to accumulate, the abdomen swells and the skin begins to blister. Soon, skin and hair slippage occur and the fingernails begin to slough off. By this stage, the body has taken on a greenish-black color. The fluids of decomposition (purge fluid) will begin to drain from nose and mouth. This may look like bleeding from trauma, but is due to extensive breakdown of the body’s tissues.

The rate at which this process occurs is almost never “normal” because conditions surrounding the body are almost never “normal.” Both environmental and internal body conditions alter this process greatly. Obesity, excess clothing, a hot and humid environment, and the presence of sepsis may speed this process so that 24 hours appear like 5 or 6 days have passed. Sepsis is particularly destructive to the body. Not only would the body temperature be higher at death, but also the septic process would have spread bacteria throughout the body. In this case, the decay process would begin quickly and in a widespread fashion. A septic body that is dead for only a few hours may appear as if it has been dead for several days.

As opposed to the above situations, a thin, unclothed corpse lying on a cold surface with a cool breeze would follow a much slower decomposition process. Very cold climes may slow the process so much that even after several months, the body appears as if it has been dead only a day or two. Freezing will protect the body from putrefaction if the body is frozen before the process begins. Once putrefaction sets in, even freezing the body may not prevent its eventual decay. If frozen quickly enough, the body may be preserved for years.

So, whether a particular corpse actually produces alcohol or not is totally unpredictable. How long it takes depends upon the conditions the corpse is exposed to. In a corpse in an enclosed garage in Houston in August, this process will be very rapid and the corpse will be severely decayed after 48 hours. If parked in a snow bank in Minnesota in February it might not even begin the decay process until April or May when the spring thaw occurs. And anything in between. The appearance of any alcohol would coincide with the time frame of the bacterial activity.

So how does the ME get around this possibility? How can he determine the actual alcohol level that was present prior to the decay process kicking in? He can’t with any absolute accuracy, but he does have a tool that will help him make a best guess. He can extract the vitreous humor from the victim’s eye—this is the jelly-like fluid that fills the eyeballs. The alcohol level within this fluid matches that of the blood with about a two-hour delay. That is, the level within the vitreous at any given time reflects the blood alcohol level that was present approximately two hours earlier. And the vitreous is slow to decay so it might be intact even though the corpse is severely decayed. By measuring the vitreous level the ME will know the blood alcohol level two hours prior to death and he can then estimate the blood alcohol level at the time of death.

 

MF&F 300X481

This question originally appeared in MORE FORENSICS AND FICTION

http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/more-forensics-and-fiction.html

 

The Kiss of Death: Beware a PBJ Sandwich

Anaphylaxis can kill you. And do so very quickly and unexpectedly.

Our immune system protects us every minute of every day by attacking microscopic creatures that could do us harm. Things such as viruses, bacteria, and other invaders. When a foreign organism enters our body, the immune system recognizes it and immediately goes to work building antibodies against it. These antibodies attach to the foreign organism and attract various blood cells to it. Mostly the various types of White Blood Cells (WBCs) we all have. The cells then damage and devour the invader. That’s a good thing.

Abs-6

But sometimes this protective system goes haywire. It over-reacts. It creates substances that lead to an acute asthmatic attack, a diffuse rash, a swelling of the face and hands and feet and other body parts, and a dramatic, and often deadly, drop in blood pressure. We call such an overwhelming reaction  anaphylactic shock.

The treatment for anaphylaxis is the immediate injection of epinephrine, antihistamines, and steroids. These either block the allergic reaction itself or mitigate the body’s reaction to it. But time is critical. These measures must be taken very quickly. This is why many people who have serious allergies carry small epinephrine injectors such as EpiPen.

Someone who is allergic to things such as bee stings, peanuts, certain foods or plants, or some medications can suffer such a reaction even if exposed to very small quantities of the allergen. A little dab can set off a major reaction.

Case in point: Myriam Ducre-Lemay.

Myriam was allergic to peanuts. She avoided them like the plague. But one evening, her boyfriend kissed her after he had eaten peanut butter and this set off an anaphylactic reaction that took her life.

peanut-butter

Mayo Clinic Article: http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/anaphylaxis/basics/definition/con-20014324

Wikipedia Article: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anaphylaxis

 

Q&A: What Injuries Can Occur With a Car Bomb?

Q&A: What Injuries Can Occur With a Car Bomb?

Q: How far away would you have to be from a car bomb (the kind that is detonated by starting the car) to survive with injuries and what sorts of injuries might you sustain in the blast?

car bomb

 

A: This is a question that is virtually impossible to answer with any degree of accuracy. There are entirely too many variables involved. How big is the bomb? How big is the car? How close is close? What direction does the shrapnel fly and in which direction is the concussive force of the bomb directed? Are there any intervening walls or structures that might dampen the concussive force or block or redirect the shrapnel? Each of these variables, and many others, must be taken into account before any prediction of possible injuries can be entertained.

Lets look at a few general principles however. Big bombs cause big problems and little bombs cause less. A large bomb can produce a massive concussive force that will spread out for many yards in every direction. It can also produce shrapnel that can fly many hundreds of feet. A small bomb, needless to say, would release a smaller concussive force and any shrapnel would move at a slower rate and therefore do less damage.

Let’s assume that this is a moderate sized bomb and the victim is standing close enough to receive injuries from the explosion. There are several types of injuries that can occur with a bomb.

If the person is close enough and the bomb is of the type that produces a great deal of heat, then burns over the skin and face can occur and even the victim’s clothing might catch fire. This could produce severe injury to the flesh and the lungs.

The concussive force of the bomb is simply a wave of air molecules that are accelerated to very high speed. When the wave strikes an object or a person, damage and bodily trauma will result. This is why a bomb will destroy a building, knock down a wall, or kill a person within the concussive umbrella. If the force is strong enough it can burst eardrums, cause sinuses within the nose and face to bleed, rupture the lungs, rupture the abdomen and internal organs, and many other nasty injuries. If the person is slightly further away, or if the concussive force is dampened somewhat, then injuries to the eardrums and sinuses may occur but the other more severe injuries to the lungs and internal organs might not occur.

Shrapnel presents a very difficult and dangerous situation. With a car exploding all types of shrapnel can be fired in every direction. Chunks of metal and glass, complete doors or windows, beams of metal and even the engine can be launched in any direction. The types of injuries that someone would suffer depends upon exactly what strikes them, where they are struck, and with what speed and force they are hit. I think it would be obvious that if a car door or engine or some large piece of metal struck someone at very high velocity it would most likely kill them instantly and if not their injuries would be so severe that without very aggressive medical treatment and luck they would die from these in short order. But what about smaller pieces of glass and metal? These can penetrate the head, the chest, or the abdomen and damage vital organs and lead to death very quickly. Or they can enter the same areas and lead to massive injury and bleeding, which can then lead to death in minutes to an hour or so. Or they could simply be flesh wounds and the person could survive but would likely require surgical repair of the wounds and treatment with antibiotics to prevent secondary infections.

You can see almost anything can happen in this explosive situation.  A large explosion at a great distance could easily do the same damage as a smaller one where the person was standing close by. Any bomb where the concussive force and shrapnel were directed away from the person might produce no injuries while if the victim were standing in the path of the concussive wave and the shrapnel he could be killed instantly. And anywhere in between. This great degree of variation in what actually happens is good for storytelling since it means that you can craft your story almost any way you want.

 

Diatoms: Microscopic Clues of Death By Drowning?

Light micrograph of radial and pennate diatoms under darkfield illumination

DIATOMS

What are diatoms? How do they help the Medical Examiner determine that a death was from drowning?

Determining that someone has drowned is not as easy as it might seem. The finding of water in the lungs isn’t enough. Sure drowning victims most often have water-filled lungs but if a corpse is tossed into a body of water, the lungs will often passively fill as the water replaces the trapped air in the airways and lung tissue. However, if the ME finds inhaled debris such as plant and water-born insects, etc. deep in the lungs, this suggests that the victim was breathing at the time they entered the water and inhaled the debris-filled water. But this isn’t always found.

So a method for determining drowning is needed. Diatoms might help. Though controversial and definitely not universally accepted as a sign of drowning, this search for diatoms is an interesting forensic science technique. And this search is not in the lungs, but rather in the bone marrow.

From HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS:

The ME might also find clues to indicate that the victim was conscious before drowning by examination of the bone marrow. This might sound odd at first, but the key is in finding tiny creatures called diatoms within the marrow.

Diatoms are tiny single-celled organisms that scurry around in both salt and fresh water. They have silica in their cell walls and are very resistant to degradation. If the victim’s heart is still beating when he enters the water, any diatoms in the inhaled water will pass through the lungs, enter the bloodstream, and be pumped throughout the body, where they tend to collect in the bone marrow.

If a microscopic analysis of the marrow reveals diatoms, the victim must have been alive at the time of water entry. This technique may be useful in severely degraded or skeletal remains where no lungs or sinus tissues are available for examination. Unfortunately, diatom testing is not exactly that straightforward and is controversial. Some experts feel that diatoms are an inexact tool for determining if a drowning occurred. Some bodies of water contain no diatoms.

Also, they are found in air and soil and even on the clothing of the examiner. This makes contamination of the tested sample a possibility.

 

Howdunnit Forensics Cover

 
 
%d bloggers like this: