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Criminal Mischief: Episode #31: Body Disposal Isn’t Easy

Criminal Mischief: Episode #31: Body Disposal Isn’t Easy

LISTEN: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/episode-31-body-disposal-isnt-easy

PAST SHOWS: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief.html

SHOW NOTES: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief-notes/31-body-disposal.html

Details/Order: http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/howdunnit-forensics.html

From HOWDUNNIT:FORENSICS:

GETTING RID OF THE BODY 

Some criminals attempt to destroy corpses, the primary pieces of evidence in homicides. They think that if the police never find the body, they can’t be convicted. This isn’t true, since convictions have in many cases been obtained when no body is found. And destroying a body is no easy task. 

Fire seems to be the favorite tool for this effort. Fortunately, this is essentially never successful. Short of a crematorium, it is nearly impossible to create a fire that burns hot enough or long enough to destroy a human corpse. Cremation uses temperatures of around 1,500oF for two hours or more and still bone fragments and teeth survive. A torched building would rarely reach these temperatures and would not burn for this long. The body inside may be severely charred on the surface, but the inner tissues and internal organs are often very well preserved. 

Another favorite is quicklime. Murderers use this because they have seen it in the movies and because they don’t typically have degrees in chemistry. If they did, they might think twice about this one. Not that quicklime won’t destroy a corpse; it just takes a long time and a lot of the chemical. Most killers who use this method simply dump some on the corpse and bury it, thinking the lime will do its work and nothing will remain. Quicklime is calcium oxide. When it contacts water, as it often does in burial sites, it reacts with the water to make calcium hydroxide, also known as slaked lime. This corrosive material may damage the corpse, but the heat produced from this activity will kill many of the putrefying bacteria and dehydrate the body. This conspires to prevent decay and promote mummification. Thus, the use of quicklime may actually help preserve the body. 

Acids are also used in this regard, and once again the criminal hopes the acid will completely dissolve the body. Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer tried this with little success. Indeed, powerful acids such as hydrochloric acid (HCl), sulfuric acid (H2SO4), and
chlorosulfuric acid (HClSO3) can destroy a corpse, bones and all. If enough acid is used over a sufficient period of time, that is. But this is not only difficult but also extremely hazardous. The acids will indeed destroy the corpse, but they will also “eat” the tub the body is in and chew up the plumbing. Acid fumes will peel the wallpaper and burn the perpetrator’s skin, eyes, and lungs. 

FORENSIC CASE FILES: THE ACID BATH MURDERER 

John George Haigh came to the English public’s attention in the 1940s when he confessed to not only multiple murders, but also to drinking his victims’ blood and destroying their corpses with acid. He seemed to favor sulfuric acid, which he kept in a vat in his workshop. He took the victims’ money and, through forgery, their property and businesses, and then basically laughed at the police as he admitted to the killings, believing they could not prosecute him without a corpse. He was wrong. He was convicted through forensic evidence and was hanged at Wandsworth Prison on August 10, 1949. 

So, whether it’s Mother Nature or the work of the perpetrator, something almost always remains for the ME and the other forensic scientist to work with. It may be an intact body, a partially destroyed corpse, or a single bone, but it will give them something to use in identification. Let’s take a look at how they do this—first with a body and then with only skeletal remains

BODY LOCATION 

With the exception of some photographic comparisons, all these forensic identification techniques require a corpse or skeletal remains. No body, nothing to work with. Often a discovered body is what instigates this identification process. But sometimes, investigators know a homicide has occurred, or has likely occurred, but they can’t find the corpse. The Laci Peterson case is an example. When Laci, who was eight months pregnant at the time, went missing on Christmas Eve 2002, in Modesto, California, it was not long before it became obvious that she had been murdered. Authorities launched a search of her neighborhood and the bay where her husband, Scott, had been fishing. In April 2003, the bodies of Laci and her unborn son Conner washed up on shore in San Francisco Bay. Scott Peterson was later convicted of the double murder. 

In homicides, finding and examining the corpse is critical. Searchers use a number of low- and high-tech location methods. All evidence is used to narrow the search area, including the victim’s work and leisure habits and witness statements. The victim may work several miles from home, so searching along this route would be undertaken. Maybe he frequently ran or walked in a nearby wooded area. Or maybe the suspect’s vehicle was spotted or some of the victim’s clothing was found in a remote area. These bits of information can greatly focus the search. 

One basic rule is to “look downhill” for a burial site. Let’s say it is believed that the body in question was buried near a remote roadway. In the area, the terrain rises above the road on one side and falls away on the other. Search downhill. Why? It is much easier to carry a body downhill than up. It’s just that simple. 

Once the area of search has been defined, a systematic approach to cover- ing the area should be followed. Freshly turned dirt, trenches, elevations or depressions in the terrain may be helpful. Fresh graves tend to be elevated above the surrounding area, while older ones may be depressed. This is due to settling of the soil, decay of the body, and collapse of the skeleton. Interestingly, the depth of the depression is greater if the body is deeply buried. This is likely due to the larger amount of turned dirt, which is subject to a greater degree of settling. Another factor could be that in deeper graves, the increased weight of the dirt over the corpse causes earlier and more complete skeletal collapse. 

Tracking dogs, if provided with an article of the victim’s clothing, may be able to follow a scent trail to the burial site. Specially trained cadaver dogs search for the scent of decaying flesh. They can often locate bodies in shallow graves or in water. Deeper graves may present problems.

Another important clue may come from changes in the vegetation over the gravesite. The turning of the soil in the digging process and the presence of the body change the soil conditions in the area over the grave. Changes in compaction, moisture, aeration, and temperature may attract plant species that differ from those around the grave. Or, the plants typical for the area may be present but the changed soil conditions may increase the thickness and richness of their growth. This may be visible, particularly from the air. 

Aerial reconnaissance and photography can be coupled with thermal imaging. Freshly turned dirt loses heat faster than normally compacted soil; it appears “colder” by such a device. Alternatively, a decaying body releases heat, which may reveal a measurable difference when compared to the surrounding area. So, the thermal images are inspected for either cold or warm spots, and these areas are then subjected to a more aggressive search. 

If a suspect area such as a mound or depression is found, special devices that locate sources of heat and nitrogen, both byproducts of the decay process, or that measure changes in the physical properties of the soil, may be employed. Ground-penetrating radar can “see” into the ground and often locate a buried body. Measurement of the electrical conductivity may prove helpful— a buried body often adds moisture to the soil, and the moisture increases the soil’s electrical conductivity. Two metal probes are placed in the soil, and an electrical current is passed between them and measured. Changes in this current may indicate where the body is buried. 

Magnetic devices may also be employed. A simple metal detector may locate the victim’s jewelry or belt buckle. 

A special device called a magnetometer, which measures the magnetic properties of soil, can also be helpful. Soil contains small amounts of iron, so it possesses a low level of magnetic reaction. Since the area where the body is buried has proportionally less soil (the corpse takes up space), it will exhibit a lower level of magnetic reactivity. The magnetometer is passed above the soil and locates any areas that have low magnetic reactivity. 

Body Encased in Concrete: https://www.breitbart.com/crime/2019/10/17/police-find-missing-womans-body-encased-concrete-arrest-two-suspects/

Body in Concrete in Plastic Storage Container: http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2012/10/13/14409189-murder-victim-found-entombed-in-concrete-was-former-fla-journalist

Acid in Tub: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/french-students-dissolve-body-in-acid-after-killing-girl-in-breaking-bad-murder-plot-10447943.html

Body Beneath Another Corpse: https://www.newser.com/story/240700/husband-hid-wifes-body-under-grave-of-wwii-veteran.html

Body Parts in Trash Bags: https://6abc.com/archive/6880388/

Cooked Spouse: https://latimesblogs.latimes.com/lanow/2012/09/la-chef-told-police-he-slow-cooked-his-wife-for-days.html

Laci Petersen in the San Francisco Bay: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scott_Peterson

Corpse in Freezer in Truck: https://www.latimes.com/archives/la-xpm-1994-07-18-mn-17076-story.html

And

https://murderpedia.org/male.F/f/famalaro-john.htm

The Science of Finding Buried Bodies: http://theconversation.com/the-science-of-finding-buried-bodies-77803

The Science of Finding Dead Bodies: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-4515430/Researchers-reveal-track-corpse.html

 

Criminal Mischief: Episode #25: A Stroll Through Forensic Science History

 

Criminal Mischief: Episode #25: A Stroll Through Forensic Science History

 

 

LISTEN:https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/forensicsciencehistory

PAST SHOWS: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief.html

SHOW NOTES: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief-notes/25-a-stroll-through-forensi.html

 

FORENSIC SCIENCE TIMELINE 

Prehistory: Early cave artists and pot makers “sign” their works with a paint or impressed finger or thumbprint.

1000 b.c.: Chinese use fingerprints to “sign” legal documents.

3rd century BC.: Erasistratus (c. 304–250 b.c.) and Herophilus (c. 335–280 b.c.) perform the first autopsies in Alexandria.

2nd century AD.: Galen (131–200 a.d.), physician to Roman gladiators, dissects both animal and humans to search for the causes of disease.

c. 1000: Roman attorney Quintilian shows that a bloody handprint was intended to frame a blind man for his mother’s murder.

1194: King Richard Plantagenet (1157–1199) officially creates the position of coroner.

1200s: First forensic autopsies are done at the University of Bologna.

1247: Sung Tz’u publishes Hsi Yuan Lu (The Washing Away of Wrongs), the first forensic text.

c. 1348–1350: Pope Clement VI(1291–1352) orders autopsies on victims of the Black Death to hopefully find a cause for the plague.

Late 1400s: Medical schools are established in Padua and Bologna.

1500s: Ambroise Paré (1510–1590) writes extensively on the anatomy of war and homicidal wounds.

1642: University of Leipzig offers the first courses in forensic medicine.

1683: Antony van Leeuwenhoek (1632–1723) employs a microscope to first see living bacteria, which he calls animalcules.

Late 1600s: Giovanni Morgagni (1682–1771) first correlates autopsy findings to various diseases.

1685: Marcello Malpighi first recognizes fingerprint patterns and uses the terms loops and whorls.

1775: Paul Revere recognizes dentures he had made for his friend Dr. Joseph Warren and thus identifies the doctor’s body in a mass grave at Bunker Hill.

1775: Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742–1786) develops the first test for arsenic.

1784: In what is perhaps the first ballistic comparison, John Toms is convicted of murder based on the match of paper wadding removed from the victim’s wound with paper found in Tom’s pocket.

1787: Johann Metzger develops a method for isolating arsenic.

c. 1800: Franz Joseph Gall (1758–1828) develops the field of phrenology.

1806: Valentine Rose recovers arsenic from a human body.

1813: Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure Orfila (1787–1853) publishes Traité des poisons (Treatise on Poison), the first toxicology textbook. 

1821: Sevillas isolates arsenic from human stomach contents and urine, giving birth to the field of forensic toxicology.

1823: Johannes Purkinje (1787–1869) devises the first crude fingerprint classification system.

1835: Henry Goddard (1866–1957) matches two bullets to show they came from the same bullet mould.

1836: Alfred Swaine Taylor (1806–1880) develops first test for arsenic in human tissue.

1836: James Marsh (1794–1846) develops a sensitive test for arsenic (Marsh test).

1853: Ludwig Teichmann (1823–1895) develops the hematin test to test blood for the presence of the characteristic rhomboid crystals.

1858: In Bengal, India, Sir William Herschel (1833–1917) requires natives sign contracts with a hand imprint and shows that fingerprints did not change over a fifty-year period.

1862: Izaak van Deen (1804–1869) develops the guaiac test for blood.

1863: Christian Friedrich Schönbein (1799–1868) develops the hydrogen peroxide test for blood.

1868: Friedrich Miescher (1844–1895) discovers DNA.

1875: Wilhelm Konrad Röntgen (1845–1923) discovers X-rays.

1876: Cesare Lombroso (1835–1909) publishes The Criminal Man, which states that criminals can be identified and classified by their physical characteristics.

1877: Medical examiner system is established in Massachusetts.

1880: Henry Faulds (1843–1930) shows that powder dusting will expose latent fingerprints.

1882: Alphonse Bertillon (1853–1914) develops his anthropometric identification system.

1883: Mark Twain (1835–1910) employs fingerprint identification in his books Life on the Mississippi and The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson (1893– 1894).

1887: In Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes novel, A Study in Scarlet, Holmes develops a chemical to determine whether a stain was blood or not—something that had not yet been done in a real-life investigation.

1889: Alexandre Lacassagne (1843–1924) shows that marks on bullets could be matched to those within a rifled gun barrel.

1892: Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911) publishes his classic textbook Finger Prints. 

1892: In Argentina, Juan Vucetich (1858–1925) devises a usable fingerprint classification system. 

1892: In Argentina, Francisca Rojas becomes the first person charged with a crime on fingerprint evidence.

1898: Paul Jeserich (1854–1927) uses a microscope for ballistic comparison. 

1899: Sir Edward Richard Henry (1850–1931) devises a fingerprint classification system that is the basis for those used in Britain and America today.

1901: Karl Landsteiner (1868–1943) delineates the ABO blood typing system. 

1901: Paul Uhlenhuth (1870–1957) devises a method to distinguish between human and animal blood. 

1901: Sir Edward Richard Henry becomes head of Scotland Yard and adopts a fingerprint identification system in place of anthropometry. 

1902: Harry Jackson becomes the first person in England to be convicted by fingerprint evidence. 

1910: Edmund Locard (1877–1966) opens the first forensic laboratory in Lyon, France. 

1910: Thomas Jennings becomes the first U.S. citizen convicted of a crime by use of fingerprints.

1915: Leone Lattes (1887–1954) develops a method for ABO typing dried bloodstains.

1920: The Sacco and Vanzetti case brings ballistics to the public’s attention. The case highlights the value of the newly developed comparison microscope.

1923: Los Angeles Police Chief August Vollmer (1876–1955) establishes the first forensic laboratory. 

1929: The ballistic analyses used to solve the famous St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago lead to the establishment of the Scientific Crime Detection Laboratory (SCDL), the first independent crime lab, at Northwestern University.

1932: FBI’s forensic laboratory is established.

1953: James Watson (1928– ), Francis Crick (1916–2004), and Maurice Wilkins (1916–2004) identify DNA’s double-helical structure. 

1954: Indiana State Police Captain R.F. Borkenstein develops the breathalyzer. 

1971: William Bass establishes the Body Farm at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

1974: Detection of gunshot residue by SEM/EDS is developed. 

1977: FBI institutes the Automated Fingerprint Identification System (AFIS). 

1984: Sir Alec Jeffreys (1950– ) develops the DNA “fingerprint” technique.

1987: In England, Colin Pitchfork becomes the first criminal identified by the use of DNA.

1987: First United States use of DNA for a conviction in the Florida case of Tommy Lee Andrews.

1990: The Combined DNA Index System (CODIS) is established.

1992: The polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technique is introduced.

1994: The DNA analysis of short tandem repeats (STRs) is introduced. 

1996: Mitochondrial DNA is first admitted into a U.S. court in Tennessee v. Ware. 

1998: The National DNA Index System (NDIS) becomes operational.

Since then:

Touch DNA

Familial DNA

Phenotypic DNA

 

Criminal Mischief: Episode #22: Common Medical Errors in Fiction

Criminal Mischief: Episode #22: Common Medical Errors in Fiction

LISTEN: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/criminal-mischief-episode-22-common-medical-errors-in-fiction

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SHOW NOTES: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief-notes/22-comon-medical-errors-in.html

Too often, fiction writers commit medical malpractice in their stories. Unfortunately, these mistakes can sink an otherwise well-written story. The ones I repetitively see include:

Bang, Bang, You’re Dead: Not so fast. No one dies instantly. Well, almost no one. Instant death can occur with heart attacks, strokes, extremely abnormal heart rhythms, cyanide, and a few other “metabolic” poisons. But trauma, such as gunshot wounds (GSWs) and blows to the head, rarely cause sudden death. Yet, how often has a single shot felled a villain? Bang, dead. For that to occur, the bullet would have to severely damage the brain, the heart, or the cervical (neck) portion of the spinal cord. A shot to the chest or abdomen leads to a lot of screaming and moaning, but death comes from bleeding and that takes time. Sometimes, a long time.

Ask any emergency physician or nurse. GSW victims reach the ER with multiple holes in their bodies and survive all the time. This is particularly true if it’s Friday night (we called it the Friday Night Knife and Gun Club), during a full moon (yes, it’s true, a full moon changes everything), or if the victim is drunk. You can’t kill a drunk. That’s a medical fact. They survive everything from car wrecks to gunshots to falling off tall buildings. The family van they hit head-on will have no survivors, but the drunk will walk away with minor scratches, if that.

Sleeping Beauty: I call this the “Hollywood Death.” Calm, peaceful, and not a hair out of place. As if simply asleep. Blood? Almost never. Trauma? None in sight. The deceased is nicely dressed, stretched out on a wrinkle-free bed, make-up perfect, and with a slight flutter of the eyelids if you look closely. Real dead folks are not so attractive. I don’t care what they looked like during life, in death, they are pale, waxy, and gray. Their eyes do not flutter and they do not look relaxed and peaceful. They look dead. And feel cold. It’s amazing how quickly after death the body becomes cold to the touch. It has to do with the loss of blood flow to the skin after the heart stops. No warm blood, no warmth to the touch.

Sleeping Beauty also doesn’t bleed. You know this one. The hero detective arrives at a murder scene a half hour after the deed to see blood oozing from the corpse’s mouth or from the GSW to the chest. Tilt! Dead folks don’t bleed. You see, when you die, your heart stops and the blood no longer circulates. It clots. Stagnant or clotted blood does not move. It does not gush or ooze or gurgle or flow or trickle from the body. 

Trauma? What Trauma?: You’ve seen and read this a million times. The hero socks the bad guy’s henchmen in the jaw. He goes down and is apparently written out of the script since we never hear from him again. It’s always the henchmen, because the antagonist, like most people, requires a few solid blows to go down. Think about a boxing match. Two guys that are trained to inflict damage and even they have trouble knocking each other out. And when they do, the one on his back is up in a couple of minutes, claiming the other guy caught him with a lucky punch. Listen to me: Only James Bond can knock someone out with a single blow. And maybe Jack Reacher or Mike Tyson. A car-salesman-turned-amateur-sleuth cannot.

And what of back eyes? If a character gets whacked in the eye in Chapter 3, he will have a black eye for two weeks, which will likely take you through the end of the book. He will not be “normal” in two days. A black eye is a contusion (bruise) and results from blood leaking into the tissues from tiny blood vessels, which are injured by the blow. It takes the body about two weeks to clear all that out. It will darken over two days, fade over four or five, turn greenish, brownish, and a sickly yellow before it disappears. On a good note, by about day seven, a female character might be able to hide it with make-up.

Similarly, what of the character who falls down the stairs and injures his back? He will not be able to run from or chase the bad guy or make love to his new lover the next day. He will need a few days (or maybe weeks) to heal. And he will limp, whine, and complain in the interim. And if he breaks something, like an arm or leg, he’ll need several weeks to recover.

I Can Run, and Jump, and Fight Like an Olympian: The typical fictional PI (maybe real ones, too) drinks too much, smokes too much, and eats donuts on a regular basis. He is not training for the Olympics. He will not be able to chase the villain for ten blocks. Two on a good day. And hills or stairs will reduce that to a very short distance. Yet chase montages in movies and books often seem to cover marathon distances. And then a fight breaks out. 

Of course, some characters can do all this. Not the PI mentioned above but maybe Dustin Hoffman can. Remember “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman) in Marathon Man? He had to run for his life as Dr. Christian Szell (Sir Laurence Olivier) and his Nazi bad guys chased him endlessly. But early in the film, we learn that he runs around the reservoir in Central Park every day. He constantly tries to increase his distance, improve his time. He could run for his life.

Hopefully, when you run across medical malpractice in your reading you’ll be forgiving and enjoy the story anyway. But maybe not.

 

Criminal Mischief: Episode #21: Autopsy Of A Thriller: The Terminator

Criminal Mischief: Episode #21: Autopsy OF A Thriller: The Terminator

LISTEN: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/episode-21-autopsy-of-a-thriller

SHOW NOTES: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief-notes/21-autopsy-of-a-thriller.html

PAST SHOWS: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief.html

 

The Autopsy of a Thriller

The Terminator (1984)

T = The Terminator

R = Kyle Reese

S = Sarah Conner

T appears in ball of light, takes clothes from punk after being stabbed and ripping out his heart. + – 0

R appears in ball of light, takes vagrants clothes, steals shotgun from police car, escapes from police, finds 3 Sarah Conners in phone book.

+-0

S works at Big Boy, ditsy and clumsy. + – 0

T steals guns from gun shop, kills owner + – 0

T finds 3 Sarah Conners in phone book. + – 0

T kills Sarah Conner #1. + – 0

S sees TV broadcast of Sarah Conner’s murder. + – 0

S date stands her up, she goes out alone. + – 0

Police learn of murder of 2nd Sarah Conner. + – 0

S heads out for night, R follows. + – 0

S in restaurant sees TV news of 2nd Sarah Conner murder, tries to call police, phone out of service   + – 0

S senses she’s being followed by R, ducks into disco, R follows, S calls police, can’t get through. + – 0

T goes to S’s apartment, kills roommate and boyfriend, hears call from Sarah who leaves message about where she is, sees photo ID of S. + – 0

S reaches police, they are coming to disco. + – 0

(Inciting Incident) 

T arrives, R and T have shoot-out. T shot multiple times but gets up. + – 0

S and R escape, T steals police car and chases + – 0

R explains that he is there to protect her and that she has been targeted for termination and that T is a cyborg that will not stop until S is dead. R tells Sarah that in the near future machines take over and start a nuclear war, then set out to destroy all humans. T must kill her to prevent her from having her son, John Conner, mankind’s savior from the machines that will rule the future world. + – 0

Chase resumes between R & S, T, and the police. S and R crash car, arrested by police, T escapes. + – 0

S learns that roommate was killed. + – 0

T repairs injured forearm and removes injured eye, revealing that he is indeed a cyborg.    + – 0

Psychiatrist explains to S that R is crazy and that T was likely on PCP and wearing a flak jacket. + – 0

(1st Turning Point) 

T attacks police station, killing many cops. + – 0

S and R steal car and escape. + – 0

T looks through Sarah’s address book, finds mother’s address. + – 0

S and R get room in motel out of city. Sarah calls her mother, tells her where they are, but she is talking to T.   + – 0

S and R make sticks of nitroglycerine and then make love. + – 0

T arrives, but S and R escape in stolen truck, T chases on motorcycle. + – 0

T avoids nitro sticks, S knocks T off bike, crashes truck, T is run over by 18-wheeler.     +   – 0

T gets up, takes over 18-wheeler, and chases S and R. + – 0

R slips nitro stick into truck, blowing it up in huge fireball, T burns in fire. + – 0

(2nd Turning Point) 

T rises from fire, now reduced to a metallic skeleton.  +-0

R and S hide in industrial building, T follows. + – 0

T corners S and R in building. + – 0

R places nitro stick in T’s ribs and blows him to pieces. + – 0

Upper half of T keeps coming, forcing S into corner. + – 0

(Climax) 

S leads T into crushing machine and crushes him. + – 0

(Denouement) 

R dies, pregnant Sarah leaves country to prepare for coming war. 

+-0

 
 

Criminal Mischief: Episode #18: Gunshot To The Chest

XRay Chest Bullet

 

Criminal Mischief: Episode #18: Gunshot To The Chest

LISTEN: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/gswtochest

PAST SHOWS: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief.html

SHOW NOTES: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief-notes/18-gunshot-to-the-chest.html

Gunshot wounds (GSWs) come in many flavors and those to the chest can be particularly dicey. Yet, a chest GSW can be a minor flesh wound, a major traumatic event with significant damage, or deadly. If you have a character who suffers such an injury, this podcast is for you.

Here are a few interesting questions about chest GSWs:

Could a Person Survive a Gunshot to the Chest in the 1880s?

Q: My scenario is set in 1880. A man in his early 20s is shot in the back by a rifle. He loses a lot of blood and is found a couple of hours later unconscious. Could he survive and if so how long would it take him it recuperate? Also, would it be possible to bring him to consciousness long enough for another man to get him into a buggy. Is any part of this scenario possible?

A: Everything about your scenario works. A gunshot wound (GSW) to the chest can kill in minutes, hours, days, or not at all. The victim would be in pain and may cough and sputter and may even cough up some blood. He could probably walk or crawl and maybe even fight and run if necessary. Painful, but possible. He would likely be consciousness so could even help get himself into the wagon.

If all goes well, he should be better and gingerly up and around in a week or two. He would be fully recovered in 6 to 8 weeks.

After surviving the initial GSW, the greatest risk to his life would a secondary wound infection. Since no antibiotics were available at that time, the death rate was very high—40 to 80 percent—for wound infections. But, if he did not develop an infection, he would heal up completely.

How Is A Gunshot To The Chest Treated?

Q: I have a few questions regarding a gunshot wound that my poor character will be sustaining later on in my story. Supposing it’s a fairly small caliber bullet (typical handgun fare, not buckshot or anything) and it hits near the heart without puncturing anything important, how long might his recovery time be? He’s a strong, kinda-healthy guy in his thirties, although he drinks a fair amount and used to smoke. He’ll be rushed to a high-quality hospital immediately and receive the best care throughout recovery…what’s his outlook? When will he be allowed to go home, if all goes well? How long before he’s healed to normal?  When will it be safe for him to walk around, drive, have sex, etc.?

A: In your story, what happens to your shooting victim depends upon what injuries he received. A gunshot wound (GSW to docs and cops) can be a minor flesh wound or can be immediately deadly or anywhere in between. It all depends on the caliber and speed of the bullet and the exact structures it hits. A shot to the heart may kill instantly or not. The victim could die in a few minutes or survive for days or could recover completely with proper medical care and surgery. It’s highly variable but ask any surgeon or ER doctor and they will tell you that it’s hard to kill someone with a gun. Even with a shot or two to the chest.

A small caliber and slow speed bullet—such as those fired by .22 and .25 caliber weapons—are less likely to kill than are heavier loads and higher velocity bullets such as .38, .357, or .45 caliber bullets, particularly if they are propelled by a magnum load—such as a .357 magnum or a .44 magnum. Also, the type of bullet makes a difference. Jacketed or coated bullets penetrate more while hollow point or soft lead bullets penetrate less but do more wide-spread damage as the bullet deforms on impact.

All that is nice but the bottom line is that whatever happens, happens. That is, a small, slow bullet may kill and a large, fast one may not. Any bullet may simply embed in the chest wall or strike a rib and never enter the chest. Or it could enter the heart and kill quickly. Or it could puncture a lung. The victim here would cough some blood, be very short of breath, and could die from bleeding into the lungs—basically drowning in their own blood. Or the lung could collapse and again cause pain and shortness of breath. But we have two lungs and unless the GSWs are to both lungs and both lungs collapse the person would be able to breathe, speak, even run away, call for help, or fight off the attacker. Whatever happens, happens.

This is good for fiction writers. It means you can craft your scene any way you want and it will work. He could suffer a simple flesh wound and have pain, shortness or breathe, and be very angry. He could have a lung injury and have the above symptoms plus be very short of breathe and cough blood.  If the bleeding was severe or if both lungs were injured he could become very weak, dizzy, and slip into shock. Here his blood pressure would be very low and with the injury to his lungs the oxygen content of his blood would dip to very low levels and he would lose consciousness as you want. This could happen in a very few minutes or an hour later, depending upon the rapidity of blood loss and the degree of injury to the lungs.

Once rescued, the paramedics would probably place an endotracheal (ET) tube into his lungs to help with breathing, start an IV to giver IV fluids, and transport him to the hospital immediately. He would then be seen by a trauma surgeon or chest surgeon and immediately undergo surgery to remove the bullets (if possible) and to repair the damaged lung or whatever else was injured. He could recover quickly without complications and go home in a week, rest there for a couple of weeks, return to part-time work for a few weeks and be full speed by 3 to 4 months. Or he could have one of any number of complications and die. Or be permanently disabled, etc. It all depends upon the nature of Injuries, the treatment, and luck.

What Does a Close-range Gun Shot to the Chest Look Like?

Q: I have a question regarding gunshot wounds. In my latest mystery, a man and a woman, my heroine, struggle for a gun. It goes off, hitting the man in the chest. I want the man to live, but be temporarily incapacitated and need hospital care, so if the chest isn’t the best location, other suggestions are welcome. What would the gunshot wound likely look like before and after the man’s shirt was removed? Would there be a lot of bleeding where my heroine would take his shirt off and stuff it over the wound?

A: A gunshot wound (GSW) to the chest would work well. For it to be quickly fatal, the bullet would have to damage the heart or the aorta or another major blood vessel, such as the main pulmonary (lung) arteries. Under these circumstances, bleeding into the chest, the lungs,  and around the heart would likely be extensive and death could be almost instantaneous or in a very few minutes. He could survive even these injuries, but this would require quick and aggressive treatment, including emergent surgery, and a pile of luck.

If the bullet entered the lung, the victim could die from severe bleeding into the lung and basically drowning in his own blood. Or not. He could survive such an injury and would then require surgery to remove the bullet, control the bleeding within the lung, and repair the lung itself. This would require a couple of hours of surgery, a week in the hospital, and a couple of months to recover fully.

The bullet could simply embed in the chest wall and never enter the chest cavity. It could bounce off the sternum (breast bone) or a rib and deflect out of the chest, into the soft tissues of the chest wall, or downward into the abdomen. Once a bullet strikes bone, it can be deflected in almost any direction. Sometimes full-body X-rays are required to find the bullet. If the bullet simply embedded beneath his skin or against a rib or the sternum, he would require a minor surgical procedure to remove the bullet and debride (clean-up) the wound. He would be hospitalized for only 2 to 3 days and would go home on antibiotics and basic wound care.

Close-range, but not direct muzzle contact, wounds typically have a small central entry wound, a black halo called an abrasion collar, and often an area of charring around the wound. The charring comes from the hot gases that exit the barrel with the bullet. In addition, there is often tattooing, which is a speckled pattern around the entry wound. This is from the soot and unburned powder that follows the bullet out of the muzzle and embeds (tattoos) into the skin. The spread of this pattern depends upon how close the muzzle is to the entry point, If it over about 3 feet, then no tattooing or charring will occur.

In your scenario, the victim’s shirt would likely collect the soot and heat so that it would be charred and “tattooed,” rather than the victim’s skin. So, the shirt would show an entry hole, charring, and blood. Once the victim’s shirt was removed, the entry wound likely be a simple hole without any charring or tattooing, since the shirt would have collected this material and absorbed most of the heat. The wound could bleed a lot, a little, or almost none. It depends upon how many of the blood vessels that course through the skin and muscles are damaged.

Yes, her initial efforts should be the application of pressure over the wound to control bleeding until the paramedics arrive.

For more fun questions check out my Q&A books:

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FORENSICS and FICTION: http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/forensics–fiction.html

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

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MURDER AND MAYHEM: http://www.dplylemd.com/book-details/murder-and-mayhem.html

 

Criminal Mischief: The Art and Science of Crime Fiction: Episode #17: DNA and Twins

DNA Replication

 

LISTEN: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/criminal-mischief-episode-17-dna-and-identical-twins

PAST SHOWS: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief.html

SHOW NOTES:

For years it was felt that the DNA of identical twins was indeed identical. Since they come from a single fertilized egg, this would seem intuitive. But, nature likes to throw curve balls—and the occasional slider. After that first division of the fertilized, and after the two daughter cells go their way toward producing identical humans, things change. And therein lies the genetic differences between two “identical” twins.

LINKS:

One Twin Committed the Crime—but Which One?: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/01/science/twins-dna-crime-paternity.html

The Claim: Identical Twins Have Identical DNA: https://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/11/health/11real.html

The Genetic Relationship Between Identical Twins: https://www.verywellfamily.com/identical-twins-and-dna-2447117

Identical Twins’ Genes Are Not Identical: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/identical-twins-genes-are-not-identical/

Rare Australian Twins Are “Semi-Identical,: Sharing 89 Percent of Their DNA: https://www.inverse.com/article/53633-semi-identical-twins-share-78-percent-of-dna

 

Criminal Mischief: Episode #16: Arsenic: An Historical and Modern Poison

Arsenic

Criminal Mischief: Episode #16: Arsenic: An Historical and Modern Poison

LISTEN: https://soundcloud.com/authorsontheair/criminal-mischief-episode-15-arsenic-an-historical-and-modern-poison

SHOW NOTES: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief-notes/16-arsenic-an-historical.html

PAST SHOWS: http://www.dplylemd.com/criminal-mischief.html

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From HOWDUNNIT:FORENSICS

Toxicology is a relatively new science that stands on the shoulders of its predecessors: anatomy, physiology, chemistry, and medicine. Our knowledge in these sciences had to reach a certain level of sophistication before toxicology could become a reality. It slowly evolved over more than two hundred years of testing, starting with tests for arsenic. 

Arsenic had been a common poison for centuries, but there was no way to prove that arsenic was the culprit in a suspicious death. Scientist had to isolate and then identify arsenic trioxide—the most common toxic form of arsenic— in the human body before arsenic poisoning became a provable cause of death. The steps that led to a reliable test for arsenic are indicative of how many toxicological procedures developed. 

1775: Swedish chemist Carl Wilhelm Scheele (1742–1786) showed that chlorine water would convert arsenic into arsenic acid. He then added metallic zinc and heated the mixture to release arsine gas. When this gas contacted a cold vessel, arsenic would collect on the vessel’s surface. 

1787: Johann Metzger (1739–1805) showed that if arsenic were heated with charcoal, a shiny, black “arsenic mirror” would form on the charcoal’s surface. 

1806: Valentine Rose discovered that arsenic could be uncovered in the human body. If the stomach contents of victims of arsenic poisoning are treated with potassium carbonate, calcium oxide, and nitric acid, arsenic trioxide results. This could then be tested and confirmed by Metzger’s test. 

1813: French chemist Mathieu Joseph Bonaventure Orfila (1787–1853) developed a method for isolating arsenic from dog tissues. He also published the first toxicological text, Traité des poisons (Treatise on Poison), which helped establish toxicology as a true science. 

1821: Sevillas used similar techniques to find arsenic in the stomach and urine of individuals who had been poisoned. This is marked as the beginning of the field of forensic toxicology. 

1836: Dr. Alfred Swaine Taylor (1806–1880) developed the first test for arsenic in human tissue. He taught chemistry at Grey’s Medical School in England and is credited with establishing the field of forensic toxicology as a medical specialty. 

1836: James Marsh (1794–1846) developed an easier and more sensitive version of Metzger’s original test, in which the “arsenic mirror” was collected on a plate of glass or porcelain. The Marsh test became the standard, and its principles were the basis of the more modern method known as the Reinsch test, which we will look at later in this chapter. 

As you can see, each step in developing a useful testing procedure for arsenic stands on what discoveries came before. That’s the way science works. Step by step, investigators use what others have discovered to discover even more. 

Acute vs. Chronic Poisoning 

At times the toxicologist is asked to determine whether a poisoning is acute or chronic. A good example is arsenic, which can kill if given in a single large dose or if given in repeated smaller doses over weeks or months. In either case, the blood level could be high. But the determination of whether the poisoning was acute or chronic may be extremely important. If acute, the suspect list may be long. If chronic, the suspect list would include only those who had long-term contact with the victim, such as a family member, a caretaker, or a family cook. 

So, how does the toxicologist make this determination? 

In acute arsenic poisoning, the ME would expect to find high levels of arsenic in the stomach and the blood, as well as evidence of corrosion and bleeding in the stomach and intestines, as these are commonly seen in acute arsenic ingestion. If he found little or no arsenic in the stomach and no evidence of acute injury in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract, but high arsenic levels in the blood and tissues, he might suspect that the poisoning was chronic in nature. Here, an analysis of the victim’s hair can be invaluable. 

Hair analysis for arsenic (and several other toxins) can reveal exposure to arsenic and also give a timeline of the exposure. The reason this is possible is that arsenic is deposited in the cells of the hair follicles in proportion to the blood level of the arsenic at the time the cell was produced. 

In hair growth, the cells of the hair’s follicle undergo change, lose their nuclei, and are incorporated into the growing hair shaft. New follicular cells are produced to replace them and this cycle continues throughout life. Follicular cells produced while the blood levels of arsenic are high contain the poison, and as they are incorporated into the hair shaft the arsenic is, too. On the other hand, any follicular cells that appeared while the arsenic levels were low contain little or no arsenic. 

In general, hair grows about a half inch per month. This means that the toxicologist can cut the hair into short segments, measure the arsenic level in each, and reveal a timeline for arsenic exposure in the victim. 

Let’s suppose that a wife, who prepares all the family meals, slowly poisoned her husband with arsenic. She began by adding small amounts of the poison to his food in February and continued until his death in July. In May he was hospitalized with gastrointestinal complaints such as nausea, vomiting, and weight loss (all symptoms of arsenic poisoning). No diagnosis was made, but since he was doing better after ten days in the hospital, he was sent home. Such a circumstance is not unusual since these types of gastrointestinal symptoms are common and arsenic poisoning is rare. Physicians rarely think of it and test for it. After returning home, the unfortunate husband once again fell ill and finally died. 

As part of the autopsy procedure, the toxicologist might test the victim’s hair for toxins, and if he did, he would find the arsenic. He could then section and test the hair to determine the arsenic level essentially month by month. If the victim’s hair was three inches long, the half inch closest to the scalp would represent July, the next half inch June, the next May, and so on until the last half inch would reflect his exposure to arsenic in February, the month his poisoning began. Arsenic levels are expressed in parts per million (ppm).

An analysis might reveal a pattern like that seen in Figure 11-1. 

IMAGE in HOWDUNNIT: FORENSICS

 The toxicologist would look at this timeline of exposure and likely determine that the exposure occurred in the victim’s home. The police would then have a few questions for the wife and would likely obtain a search warrant to look for arsenic within the home. 

LINKS: 

Arsenic Poisoning (2007): CA Poison Control: https://calpoison.org/news/arsenic-poisoning-2007

Arsenic Poisoning Cases Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arsenic_poisoning_cases

Arsenic” a Murderous History: https://www.dartmouth.edu/~toxmetal/arsenic/history.html

Facts About Arsenic: LiveScience: https://www.livescience.com/29522-arsenic.html

Poison: Who Killed Napolean?: https://www.amnh.org/explore/news-blogs/on-exhibit-posts/poison-what-killed-napoleon

Victorian Poisoners: https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Victorian-Poisoners/

12 Female Poisoners Who Killed With Arsenic: http://mentalfloss.com/article/72351/12-female-poisoners-who-killed-arsenic

 

 
 
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