Author Question: Condition of Body in Two Views

Angela Asks:

I am an Australian writer of crime fiction novels set in SE Asia, specifically Thailand. You can read more about me and my books here: http://angelasavage.wordpress.com

In my current novel, The Dying Beach, a body washes up in the shallows of a cave by a beach. I’ve done a bit of research on forensics and how you distinguish drowning from accidental death. What I hope you can help me with is the following.
The body is that of a young Thai woman. Would the skin of the corpse whiten if it had been in the water for say, 12 hours, or would the skin still appear olive?
The body is found by a war surgeon on vacation, floating face down. When the body is rolled over, would you expect to find the eyes open? Would they be clear or cloudy?
Is there anything else I should know about a corpse found in this state? 
FYI the corpse is found in shallow, tepid water.
Any advice you can give would be much appreciated.

Jordyn Says
I actually ran this question by two sources: a physician coworker and a forensic investigator. Here are their responses.
Physician
As far as the skin pigmentation– she said a person will retain the pigment. They might look gray but won’t be “whiter”. And you’ll have to consider how blood settles when someone dies.
As far as the eyes being open or closed– she thinks partly open because it takes muscles to keep your eyes closed and if you’re dead– these aren’t functioning anymore.
As far as the eyes looking cloudy– I know when I’ve taken care of patients that have died, the color in their irises– this is the colored part of your eye– definitely look like the color leaches out. Almost looking gray. So, no clear answer here– you could probably have a little creative license.
Coroner
1)  A person’s skin pigmentation would not change unless the person has been dead for at least several weeks. Then the body would turn green and eventually black due to the decomposition. But this would take weeks into months depending on the environment the body is in (hot, cold, dry, humid, etc.).

2) When the body is rolled over the eyes may or may not be closed. There is no rhyme or reason for it. I would expect the eyes to be clear. Typically the eyes would become cloudy after the decedent has been dead for at least several days/weeks.
3) There really is not a whole lot more information. The hands would show sign of wrinkling, referred to as “washer woman hands”. This can make fingerprinting for identification difficult. Sometimes marine life will start to eat the body. This typically occurs about the face, eyes, and genitals. This of course would typically not occur within 12 hours of death. Another thing is when a body has been in the water for day(s) and is removed, decomposition will tend to accelerate. The bacteria has had no oxygen source as the body has been in water. Once the body is removed and the bacteria has a oxygen source, they really go to work to make up for lost time.

Forensic Friday: What Happened to Kenny? Part 2


In the first part of this series on an actual death investigation, Kenny, a male corpse in various stages of decomposition, was discovered dumped in a wooded area near a Canadian west coast city on a hot summer day.
There was no immediate identification, no apparent time of death, no location where he might have died, and certainly no obvious cause of death. Even without these basics, the corpse and the scene still crawled with information. On the surface, thousands of things were going to help in narrowing down the length of time that Kenny had been there.
Insects.
Entomology is a long accepted forensic science in determining the progression of nature’s recycling program. It relies on the study of the insect life cycle; egg, larva, pupa, adult, and back to egg. Each species has a specific time frame and a collection of specimens from the scene is critical. By determining which insects were present and what stages of development they were in, you can simply count the days of production. Fortunately, two factors were in favor this day.
One is that the conditions were perfect for insect proliferation; early summer, hot and dry weather, being in a semi-shaded rural area, and having a huge supply of rotting flesh. The second was having a world renowned lady entomologist residing a phone call away at the University of British Columbia – the ‘Bug Bitch’ as she’s affectionately known in the forensic world.
The scene was held until the entomologist arrived and took samples of the insect life and surrounding vegetation. A forensic pathologist was consulted by phone but declined to attend. Contrary to popular police shows, pathologists rarely examine a body on site as there’s little they can do that the coroner and police forensic officers can’t. A common misconception is that time of death can be readily determined by a pathologist taking rectal temperature or pulling some rabbit from their hat. Absolutely not so.
A must-do was a manual search of the corpse for any identifiers; wallet with ID, jewelry, pocket contents – anything – and in Kenny’s case nothing was found. There were some apparent things for follow-up. His mummified left arm showed numerous tattoos and his teeth, very visible in the skeletonized skull, showed a large gap between the top incisors. Without a doubt, in life, Kenny would have been very recognizable when he smiled.
A scene search had been methodically conducted by a small army of police officers and two service dogs. This was done in a strict grid pattern and anything of interest was recorded on a GPS data point, then collected, catalogued as evidence, and mapped out in a computerized reconstruction. This sounds easy, but the thick woods and step terrain made the search a logistical hassle.
Compounding the challenge was that the site had been used as an unauthorized waste dump. For years, careless people had chucked stuff over this bank and it was strewn with plastics and papers, tires and tools, boards and bags and boxes. Determining what was current, what was historic, and what was relevant, was a judgment call however something of interest could be seen trapped under the body.
Remains removal is usually a matter of physically lifting the corpse and placing it in a body bag, then carrying it to a van and transporting to the morgue. In Kenny’s case – not so easy. His state of decomp was to the point of disarticulation; in other words coming apart at the joints. Now this is not the first time a rotting corpse had been transferred and a trick of the trade is to use large, plastic snow scrapers to effectively ‘team shovel’ the cadaver in one piece into a bag. Again, sounds simple, till you consider this was on an incline and the first disturbance caused a swarm flies and a reek of gassing off.
With Kenny now on his way to the morgue, a better look was taken at what had been underneath him. A white plastic bag was recovered which contained the usual garbage; 7-11 wrappers, Big Gulp cups, napkins, pop cans… and a receipt with a time and date.
This obviously had been down the bank before Kenny landed on top of it, but did it come with him? It’d eventually proved corroborative in determining Kenny’s time of death, but who was he? How’d he get here? And what or who the hell killed him?
There was a lot of science ahead. And some good ‘ol detective work.
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Garry Rodgers has lived the life that he writes about. Now retired as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police homicide detective and forensic coroner, Garry also served as a sniper with British SAS–trained Emergency Response Teams and is a recognized expert-witness in firearms. A believer in ‘What Goes Around, Comes Around’ Garry provides free services in helping writers throughhis crime and forensic expertise. Garry’s new supernatural thriller No Witnesses To Nothing is based on a true crime story where many believe that paranormal intervention occurred. An Amazon Top 10 Bestseller, it’s available on Kindle and print on demand. You can connect with Garry via his Website: www.dyingwords.net

Forensic Friday: What Happened to Kenny? Part 1


Welcome to the first of a series on an actual death which I investigated; probably the most interesting of my career. What makes this case so intriguing is the wide variety of forensic and investigative methods that were used and the incredible challenge in mandating the Coroner’s duty of establishing:
Who was the deceased?
When did they die?
Where did they die?
What was the cause of death?
By what means did they die?
In Kenny’s case I had none of these answers… to start with. Let me set the scene.
One hot summer morning, on beautiful Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, a cyclist was coasting downhill through a curved, thick, wooded stretch on a rural road when she caught the overpowering whiff of decaying organic matter. Stopping to investigate, she peered over a steep bank, seeing a blackened mass crawling with insects one hundred feet below. Thinking it was a deer that’d been hit by a car, she was about to leave when it occurred that deer don’t wear running shoes.
She punched her cell and, in fifteen minutes, the place was swarming with cops.
I arrived within the hour to examine the corpse. The police had the scene secured, photographed, GPS’d, and were doing perimeter grid searches with a service dog. As required by law, no one had interfered with the position nor condition of the body. The first thing that struck me was the cadaver’s bizarre condition.
Post mortem mechanisms of body breakdown are fairly predictable and uniform. There is a long recognized scientific process of ‘Mortis’ or changes in composition. It starts with ‘Palor Mortis’ which is a color difference once oxygenated blood stops flowing. ‘Algor Mortis’ comes next – the cooling of temperature which heads towards an equilibrium of the surroundings. ‘Rigor Mortis’ occurs within a few hours. It’s the stiffening of muscle tissue caused by an enzyme change. ‘Livor Mortis’, or lividity, is the gravitational settling of blood which creates a distinctive pattern on the lower sections and pressure points. ‘Putrefaction’ is the breaking down of tissue and the gassing off which creates the horrible smell associated with rotting meat. ‘Decompositon’ is lengthier and leads to the finality of ‘Skeletonization’ or ‘Mummification’.
In Kenny’s case, everything was going on here. He was supine, or lying on his back, with his left arm folded across his chest and his right positioned under his torso. Both legs were outstretched with his buttocks lodged against a large stump, preventing him from descending further down the hillside. Kenny’s face was gone, exposing a grotesque sneer like something from Pirates Of The Carribean, but the back of his scalp was intact holding a long mess of light brown hair. His only clothes were a baggy T-shirt, athletic shorts, and a pair of brand-new, unlaced Nike runners.
Kenny was The Body-Farm’s poster boy. His skull was a combination of skeletonization and putrefaction. His anterior (front) torso was in decomposition, but his posterior (rear) still showed lividity with minor rigor present in the neck and shoulders. Algor was at scene temperature and palor was all over the place. Curiously, his left arm and hand had mummified, right ones were decomposing, his exposed legs – from thighs to ankles – were only bones, but his feet were perfectly preserved inside the rubber shoes. To compound matters, Kenney was a mess of maggots and a swirl of flies.
There was one clear culprit at work. Heat.
But a variance in heat.
Kenny was lying on a north downslope, positioned parallel to the summer sun’s high east-to-west path. There were rows of evergreens between Kenny and the openness of the upper road which created a picket-fence effect, letting direct sun exposure at different times on different body parts. Full sun had been most prevalent on his center which mummified the arm/hand, but the shield of his shirt trapped in torso moisture, allowing a normal decomposition. His pelvis had been semi-shaded, though his legs had full sun, resulting in skeletonized bone. Kenny’s face was also obliterated by sun exposure and the quicker breakdown of the sun-beaten areas was exacerbated by insects who found the softer tissue easier to feed on.
So all I had was an apparent male found deceased in a very suspicious manner, as if killed somewhere else and dumped off this roadside. But who was he? When did he die? Where did he die? What caused his death? What were the means? Was the classification a homicide? An accident? Suicide? Natural cause? It was also apparent he’d been there for a considerable time. How long?
Time would tell.
This was the start of a long, complex investigation before I found out what happened to Kenny.
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Garry Rodgers has lived the life that he writes about. Now retired as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police homicide detective and forensic coroner, Garry also served as a sniper with British SAS–trained Emergency Response Teams and is a recognized expert-witness in firearms. A believer in ‘What Goes Around, Comes Around’ Garry provides free services in helping writers throughhis crime and forensic expertise. Garry’s new supernatural thriller No Witnesses To Nothing is based on a true crime story where many believe that paranormal intervention occurred. An Amazon Top 10 Bestseller, it’s available on Kindle and print on demand. You can connect with Garry via his Website: www.dyingwords.net

Forensic Issues: Maintaining the Chain of Evidence

I can remember when I’d been in nursing about two years and became involved with a patient who’d been the victim of a sexual assault. I was tasked with the job of collecting most of the evidence for her rape kit and when I was done, I had about three large paper (grocery size) bags of evidence.

Photo by Todd Wiseman

Taking care of a sexual assault victim takes a lot of time. It can easily tie up one nurse for several hours. What becomes paramount is maintaining the Chain of Evidence or Chain of Custody. You may find that these terms are used interchangeably but essentially mean the same thing.

Chain of custody is a record of who was accountable for the evidence from the time it is collected to the time it is disposed of. It’s a chronological record of signatures of who possessed the evidence when. If the chain of custody is broken, the item may be inadmissible in a court of law.

The envelope is designed to reflect this. It may look something like this:

Jordyn Redwood, RN
Steven Lee– Denver PD

Steven Lee– Denver PD
Luke Simmons– Denver Crime Lab

Etc…etc.

From the point in time where I collect the evidence, it should be locked up where few people have access. For instance, a locker where there is only one key. It could come into play who has access to the locker so it should only be a small group of people. If the evidence cannot be locked up, then it must stay in the possession of the person who collected it until it is handed off to the next responsible person– typically someone in law enforcement.

In my case, there wasn’t a place to lock it up. The police took about an hour to claim it. So, as I continued to care for patients, I literally carried those bags with me from room to room.

Can you think of a plot where chain of evidence could come in to play? My thought was… what if someone was an impostor and signed on the chain of custody log. What would happen when that was found out?