Showing posts with label Death. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Death. Show all posts

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Working Stiff - Medical Examiners In Action: Information for Writers with Dr. Judy Melinek


Wide angle shot of hospital morgue
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Today, ThrillWriting welcomes our guest, Dr. Judy Melinek - a medical examiner who is out with her new book Working Stiff.

Before we get started here are some abbreviations:
GSW= Gunshot Wound 
MVA = Motor Vehicle Accident
ME = Medical Examiner
COD = Cause of Death
OD = Overdose to the abbreviations
MI = Myocardial Infarction (Heart Attack

Good morning Doctor. I'd shake your hand, but uhm, you just got out of you lab and eww. You have one of those jobs that makes me very much appreciate that we all have different personalities and roles to play in society. Mine is to ask invasive questions and yours is to be invasive - for good reason.

Can you take through your background a little?

Dr.  Melinek - 
Authors Dr. Judy Melinek and T.J. Mitchell

I got my undergraduate degree from Harvard in 1991, and then I went to Medical School at UCLA. I graduated in 1996, having taken a one year "post-sophomore fellowship" in pathology. Then I did six months of a residency in general surgery before dropping out and switching to pathology. Four years later I was a board-certified pathologist and went to train at the New York City Medical Examiner's Office. Working Stiff: Two years, 262 Bodies & the Making of a Medical Examiner (Scribner) published in August 2014 is my memoir of that training. After that I worked for one year at the Santa Clara Office of the Medical Examiner/Coroner, nine years at the San Francisco Office of the Chief Medical Examiner and one year at the Alameda County Coroner's Office. As a forensic pathologist, I do autopsies to figure out the cause and manner of death in sudden, unexpected or violent deaths.

Fiona - 
Can you walk me through the process? For example: What information are you given along with the body? What is your role

in the process? How is the body packaged and then what do you do?

Dr. Melinek - 
When I come in to work every morning there is a list of cases for me and my colleagues to look at. It is called the "Daily Case List," and it summarizes each death that was brought in over the last 24 hours, or if it is a Monday, over the weekend. Each case typically has a case number (2014-00123) and a name (Last name, First name) and then a brief description of the circumstances surrounding the death. It would say something like this:

 A 53 year old woman found deceased in a neighbor's garage holding a power tool. She was found with the tool still in her hands, prone on the floor. She was found by the neighbor who minutes earlier had given her the drill, which she was borrowing, and then briefly left her in the garage to answer a phone call. When the neighbor returned he found her unresponsive. Paramedics were called and declared death... 

There usually is some notation about the medical history, the condition and appearance of the body and whether there were drugs present. Every case gets a similar write-up though some are briefer than others, especially if there is no medical history, the body is just "found" by a stranger in the field, or there is a medical chart to go through, and then the investigators will briefly summarize what's in the chart by saying something like "he died of medical complications 3 months after the arrest..."

We then go through the list and decide which cases to autopsy and which can get an external examination. Then we go into the morgue to take a look at the cases we assigned ourselves and at the bodies. Autopsies start around 9 am and end around 12 noon.

The body arrives in a "pouch" or "body bag" and is removed by technicians. It is already stripped and naked on the autopsy table when we get in UNLESS the case is a homicide - then the clothing and hand bags and evidence are usually still on the body for us to observe and document.

Fiona - 
How long is each autopsy?

Dr. Melinek - 
It depends. Average autopsy (natural, OD, MVA) can take about 45 minutes from when I start the external examination to when I leave the table for the techs to close up the body. More complex cases (injured babies, multiple gunshot wound homicides with intersecting paths) can take hours, even be split up over multiple days. My longest one took me 3 days to complete working 3-4 hours each day on the autopsy dissection, X-ray radiography and documentation alone (not including the dictation, which I often do later from my notes).

Fiona - 
Not all bodies are referred to you correct? For example a male who takes nitroglycerin and dies of a heart attack would skip you and go right to the funeral home?

Dr. Melinek - 
It depends. Cases are referred to the Coroner or Medical Examiner when they are sudden and unexpected. So if the guy who took nitroglycerin and died of a heart attack did so at a bank during a bank robbery, we would be concerned that the MI was a result of the stress of the robbery, and he would come to us. Cases that die in the hospital or natural disease and a doctor from the hospital is willing to sign the death certificate don't get referred to us, unless there was trauma or the family called and had evidence of foul play - e.g. they said the death wasn't natural.

Fiona - 
How do you determine what kinds of exams to do? What exams are available to you? Does this depend on location - for example would a small town send a body to a larger city for any reason? And the final question in this stream of thought, how long do the various tests take to get back the needed information for example toxicology reports?

Dr. Melinek - 
The examination is dependent on the information we get about a case. So for instance, an MVA, that would be referred to the ME or Coroner. The cases are usually done locally, but it depends on the jurisdiction. So for your authors, they need to decide if the place they are writing about is real or fictional. If it is real, I suggest they Google the Coroner's office for that county and find out from the Coroner's investigator what would happen to the body. I have fielded calls like this from writers before at my jurisdiction. Most folks are happy to help. They want writers to get it right!

The amount of time it takes to get the results back from an autopsy depends on a lot of factors: the complexity of the case, if there is toxicology, or if there is additional investigation needed. Most cases are closed in 1 -3 months. I've had some take 1 year. Tox results come back in 2-4 weeks in most cases.

Fiona -
When you are watching TV/movies or reading books - what about their portrayal of a ME makes you want to pull your hair out - what do you want writers to get right?

Dr. Melinek - 
I actually wrote a blog post about this. It's called 7 CSI Fails. Writers often get the details right (because they looked them up in books or journals), but then they put it together all wrong. Let me give you an example. There was an episode of CSI where the pathologist identified that a person was shot with a meat bullet because there are different types of maggots that prey on beef than on humans. Now, I'm not an entomologist. There is *no way* I would be able to distinguish a beef-eating maggot from a human-flesh-eating-maggot. In fact, I believe that you can't tell them apart until they mature past the larval stage - but that is another matter entirely. Writers usually get the details of how a poison works, but then they have the detective doing something dangerous or foolish that is out of proper protocol and would never happen - like break chain of custody, or have it tested by a "friend" instead of the official lab - stuff like that.

Fiona - 
When you see a body, can you guess right off the cause of death for example, anaphylaxis when eating shrimp, pink skin tone/ organs with poisoning/ white substance about the nose and signs of respiratory failure. Could you/would you see these things without a toxicology report and give the cops and educated guess to work off of before the official report is out - would it make a difference if they were good friends? (Hypothetically, of course)

Dr. Melinek - 
First of all, let me tackle the friends thing. Then I will tackle the knowing the COD (Cause of death) afterwards. 

You don't get too close to police officers in this field. There are many that I love working with and have years-long collegial relationships with but in general it is professional suicide to date or even fraternize with cops after hours. I have gone to many of their retirement parties and have had lunch with a few of them while we discussed cases (working lunches/coffee) but few ME's (unless in a really rural area, where there is no one to hang out with) will have chummy relationships with cops. There is a simple reason: objectivity. As I discuss in Working Stiff, sometimes my conclusions and the police officers are at cross purposes. I think the case is a homicide, but he thinks it's a simple accident and doesn't want to investigate further. My determination (homicide) complicates his life considerably...

Now, there are some things you can tell from the outside of the body to give the cops something to work with. Here's an example: 
The roommate says that he came home from work and found the guy dead with the crack pipe next to him, but there is a furrow around the neck and the crack pipe is nestled in the hands with the guy sitting on the couch, and yet the guy's left hand is "defying gravity" while all the lividity is on the body's left side, indicating that the body was moved *after* rigidity ad lividity developed. The roommate most likely strangled him and then sat him up to try to make it look like a drug OD. 

Foam in the mouth is non-specific: it could be heart failure, heroin OD, or drowning... among other things. Usually it's a constellation of findings that make you suspicious something is up - not just one thing.

As for tox deaths, they usually have no interesting physical findings at all, and there is a dipstick you can use in the morgue on urine or pericardial fluid to see if the tox will be positive, but few morgues use it. It has good sensitivity but poor specificity - if I recall correctly. Usually we have a "negative autopsy" (meaning no significant anatomic cause of death) and we wait 2-4 weeks for the tox to come back.

Fiona - 
You've mentioned your book Working Stiff - it's a fascinating subject.
1) For our squeamish readers - how graphic is it? 
2) Can you give us a general description 
3) What could a writer learn from reading your book that would
     make their prose better?

Dr. Melinek - 

Working Stiff has a very matter-of-fact description of the autopsy process. I don't paint a pretty picture or use euphemisms. I tell it like it is. I describe how a forensic autopsy is done from the external incisions all the way down to how each organ is examined, but I focus on the interesting details, and it doesn't read like a how-to-manual. It's meant for the lay public - but I wouldn't recommend reading it while you are eating dinner if you are squeamish. 

General description: You make a Y incision from the shoulders to the pubic bone, then peel back the skin and take out the organs one by one, weight them and slice them in certain ways to look for signs of disease or injury in each one. Some pathologists dictate during this time to overheard microphones. I take notes or have my assistant take notes and I dictate later. 

Anyone who reads Working Stiff, will get a much better understanding of what a forensic pathologist does, and how we investigate deaths. They will also learn along with me, as I wrote the journal the book was based on while I was training. It's not just about getting the right terminology - it's about understanding the mindset of a doctor/detective.

In WORKING STIFF, readers learn:

* Real-life crime solving, and the truth behind shows like CSI and
   Law and Order
* On-the-job training as a detective-doctor in New York
* The harrowing process of identifying the victims of 9/11 and
   American Airlines flight 587
* Judy’s role in grief support, and in providing closure to families
   after unforeseen deaths
* The quest for a work/life balance, shuttling between the living and
    the dead—conducting an autopsy while pregnant, feeling a new
    human life growing inside you while exploring the body of
    another life just extinguished
* T.J.’s role of stay-at-home dad—and the sacrifices we make to
   support the ones we love
* How the suicide of Judy’s father when she was young informs her
   job as a medical examiner
* True tales—stranger than fiction—from the morgue

I wrote Working Stiff with my husband. When I was training, I took notes and at the end of my fellowship I structured the book into the case-based structure it has now. I handed the notes off to him, and as an English major, who worked in the film industry as a "script-doctor" for years, he took the notes and structure and created the book. We e-mailed it back and forth between us chapter by chapter for over a year, writing, re-writing and polishing. This was really a combined labor of love. 

We really enjoy working together as a collaborative team. We are now working on writing a forensic detective fiction/noir series based in San Francisco, and we are having a lot of fun doing it. We both bring our respective skill sets to each project: me as a doctor and researcher, he as a writer. Medical school does horrors for your writing: I tend to write in the passive voice, and ramble on. He writes so much better than I do. We couldn't do what we do without the other.

Fiona - 
Here at ThrillWriting we have a traditional question - please tell me the story behind your favorite scar - and barring a scar can you tell us a harrowing story that you survived?

Dr. Melinek - 
I have a stigmata: a 1/2 inch scar on my left hand, which I got when I was 10 years old at camp. I was climbing on a rusty windowpane that was discarded in the woods by the campground parking lot. Why anyone would dump and rusty windowpane in a place where children are dropped off is beyond me. The pane was huge: built for an industrial-type window, and it was folded on itself like a jungle gym. Others were climbing on it as well. Well, when the bell rang for the first camp session to start, the other kids ran off and I tried to climb down by myself, and then I fell, impaling my left palm on a rusty spike from the pane. It went in about 1/2 inch. I pulled my hand off, started crying, but then realized that there was no one around to help me. So I stopped crying, walked to the nurses' station, and I realized that things were serious when they let me go ahead of the kid who was bright red, covered head to toe in poison oak. They took me to the hospital where I had to get stitches.

Fiona - 
Thank you so much for your time and expertise. You can contact Dr. Melinek at:
 Twitter handles are: @drjudymelinek and @TJMitchellWS 
 They also have the #DrWorkingStiff

See how this article influenced my plot lines in my novella MINE and my novel CHAOS IS COME AGAIN.

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Death Notifications: Is Your Heroine About to Get Bad News? Information Writers

English: Buick Flxible Hearse (note spelling f...
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A ThrillWriting reader asked me about the process of death notification, wanting to get it right in her plot line. 

There are so many police duties that are misrepresented in media that I was pleased to be able to speak with a law enforcement professional about this aspect of their job. Karla (her full name and agency will remain anonymous for privacy's sake) is a 15 year POST Certified Law Enforcement Officer with a Masters Degree in Psychological Counseling. She is also a Licensed Professional Counselor and a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist. Karla has been working with victims and their families for over 21
years and has made hundreds of death notifications. 

Fiona - 
Welcome, Karla. My first question for you is about the level of training an officer gets to perform the task of death notification. Surely, your credentials and level of expertise are unique.

Karla -
Death notification is one of the most difficult tasks in our profession. Most LE (law enforcement) officers receive training during the police academy, but it is usually brief and limited training. 

I teach this topic in our academy. There are other organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving that offers this training to LE agencies. Some agencies, such as ours, have officers that specialize in this task and many use an Agency Chaplain for this role.

In order to make a successful death notification……you have to CARE.

Fiona - 
What happens when it's a small town? Do they have trained personnel come in from a bigger dept?

Karla - 
Small town agencies can deliver notifications just as well as larger departments – they just need to provide the right training for their officers and the training is available.

Fiona - 
What kinds of interventions do you do in person versus over the phone? 

Karla - 
I would never give a death notification over the phone. Even if we have to make a notification to someone out of state, I would contact a LE agency in that 
person’s area and have them go to make personal contact. You have no control over a situation if you 
make the notification over the phone. Someone could attempt to
harm themselves after they receive the news, and you would never know. I make notifications in person for deaths and serious injuries. I will go to wherever that person is. I have even boarded a helicopter to make a notification to someone working offshore on an oil platform.

An HH-60H Sea Hawk helicopter prepares to land...
 (Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery)

Regarding death notifications, the shift supervisor would contact me when there is a need. I would gather the exact name of the deceased and the name of the person I need to notify, and I make SURE that I contact the correct person.

I obtain the details of how the victim died, and I will provide that (to a certain extent but will spare “gory” details when I can). When I deliver the actual news.

Fiona -
What are some of the typical reactions you see when you offer a family your information.

Karla - 
People react to trauma differently. I have had people try to attack me and tackle me to the ground, and I have had those that just stare at me with a blank stare and no reaction at all.

Usually, they beg me to tell them that “it’s not true” and cry and sob. Most immediately want to go to their loved one and see them. Sometimes it is not possible, and those cases are the hardest because the families need closure/proof that their loved one has really died.

Fiona - 
Have you ever had anyone go into shock or need medical intervention after receiving the news?

I try to find out if the survivor has any type of medical condition (such as heart problems, mental issues, or pregnancy) and I contact the ambulance service and have them “standby” down the street from where I’m making the notification. I have never had to use them thus far.

Fiona - 
Under what circumstances can they not see the body.

Karla - 
If the deceased in part of a crime scene, the family cannot see the body. This is for evidentiary purposes. In those cases, they would have to wait until the coroner releases the body and would have to go to the funeral home to view their loved one. On occasion, they may go to the coroner’s office. I have also had cases where the body was so damaged that there wasn’t much left to see.

Fiona - 
Do they need to go and identify the body?

Karla - 
I have only had a rare few cases where we needed a family member to identify the body, and when that happens, they go to the coroner’s office.

If the survivor has to go to another location to view the body, such as the funeral home or coronor’s office, I always go with them.

Fiona - 
How does your department go about finding the next of kin or someone to inform? Say that they were an unmarried adult orphan without any obvious family ties?

Karla - 
We have an extensive LE database that we use and can usually find a next-of-kin within an hour or two. Only in cases where we are delayed in identifying the victim does it take longer than a couple of hours. In those cases, we may have to finger print the victim or work with other LE agencies for identification.

Two little girls in a park near Union Station,...
 (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)
Notifications to children are extremely hard. I always make sure that an adult that the child trusts is with me.

Fiona - 
What do you do if the deceased are the parents and the children are home alone?

Karla - 
If I have to notify a minor child, I make contact with another adult relative first and take that relative
with me to make contact with the child.

What if it is a child who died and there is joint custody/separate residence - do you seek out both parents?

Karla - 
If it is a child and joint custody is in effect; ideally I like both parents present but will make the notification with one present if I have to. I don’t want to delay a notification because news travels fast in south Louisiana and I don’t want them to find out that way. That is another topic….social media! It becomes a nightmare when a tragedy happens.

Fiona - 
Yes - how has social media changed things - have you ever arrived to panicking family who just read something on Facebook?

Karla - 
MSI laptop computer
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Social media has certainly made this difficult. Often, we arrive to deliver a notification and someone has already read about the tragedy on Facebook or worse, someone has sent the survivor a message or even a picture of the scene! I can just imagine how awful that must be to receive something like that. I have
had many situations where I was in the midst of delivering the notification and the survivor’s cell phone get going off with social media notifications.

Fiona - 
How long is your typical contact in terms of staying at the initial point of contact and making sure everyone is stable? 

Karla - 
Each case is different in terms of how long I will stay with a victim. I make it a common practice to make sure another relative or friend arrives to support them before I leave the survivor. Typically, I will remain for about an hour. 

Fiona - 
You've seen the notification process portrayed on the TV and other media. What common mistakes do you see that you would like people to know are untrue? Are there any other aspects of your job that you would like to convey?

Karla - 
I don’t like the way TV portrays death notifications when the officers appear so cold and calloused. We are not all like that. Some of us care very much about the people that we have to notify because someday, we may be on the receiving end of a notification.

Calla Light Bulb
Calla Light Bulb (Photo credit: big/sara)
Some of my notifications have been very difficult. One that stands out in my mind involved an elderly man that was killed in a farming accident. I went to his home to notify his wife and found her sitting at the kitchen table with a birthday cake on the table. It was her birthday, and she was waiting for her husband to come home so they could light her candles. 

I have been referred to as the “Grim Reaper” and the “Angel of Death.” Someone once told me that they wouldn’t take my job for a million dollars. Aside from these comments, there are the people who are so grateful that I showed compassion and empathy when bringing them the most difficult news of their lives…..they are the people who enable me to continue this difficult task year after year. I care about each and every one of them that I have ever had contact with.

Fiona - 
Karla, I can truly sense your deep care. What a wonderful gift to the families at their lowest most difficult point to have someone who is sensitive and strong there for them. I imagine those negative comments come from people who are deeply afraid and want to distance themselves from the possibilities in their own lives. I personally am so very grateful knowing that there are people out there like you who have the capacity to do this job. 

So a heartfelt thank you.

See how this article influenced my plot lines in my novella MINE and my novel CHAOS IS COME AGAIN.

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Forensic Entomology: Something's Bugging Me About the Murder Scene


Description: Calliphora vicina. Blow-flies (al...
. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
WARNING: The photos and videos contained in this blog may be considered graphic in nature. Please 
consider your tolerance before viewing.

Your character arrives at the crime scene ready to put her full professionalism into play and solve the crime.
Uh oh! They've found a body. Your heroine calls in the coroner  because it's required by law. But very quickly, your heroine realizes from the state of the remains that the body has been decomposing for over 72 hours. So she makes two more calls:
Blow-flies (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
* the forensic anthropologist to process the remains.
* A forensic entomologist to process the bugs.

- Blog Link to Crime Scene 101
Blog Link Coroner/Death
Blog Link Algor, Livor, and
   Rigor Mortis
Blog Link Forensic

* In the first 72 hours there are more precise ways to
   determine time of death than by using insect evidence.
* After 72 hours insect evidence is the most accurate
   and possibly the only way to determine time of death.

A forensic entomologist - deals with any bugs that would show up in the court of law. 

Video Quick Study (2:42) a forensic entomologist talks about his job.

Sometimes, because of access, distance, or budgets, getting a forensic entomologist to the crime scene is not possible. A CSI can gather the evidence.

A Typical Crime Scene Kit
A Typical Crime Scene Kit (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Video Quick Study (1:36)  Review of a field forensic entomology kit.
* Different species should be kept separate
* Insects collected from different body parts should be kept
* Maggot clusters should be documented, photographed, and
   temperatures obtained.
* The specimens should be labelled with:
   - date and time
   - name of the collector
   - stage of insect development at time of the collection
* When the bugs are collected your character will want to have 2

- Sample One - contains alcohol (the bugs die) this shows:
   1. what stage of development the bugs were in when they were
   2. helps the emtomologist to define the approximate time of death
   3. can be used  in court as evidence.

- Sample Two - keeps the specimens alive. Add a dampened paper
   towel and cover with dry paper towel held on with a rubber band.
   This allows the entomologist to incubate the insects in their lab 
   and determine a  more specific time line.

Other data that will help a forensic entomologist make sound scientific inferences in the laboratory include:

* Habitat: ex desert, vegetative, meadow, woods
Ruler in use at a mock crime scene
Ruler in use at a mock crime scene (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
* Soil samples
* Weather at the time of collection 
    including: shady? sunny? 
    raining? temperature?
* Vegetation in the area
* Death site including elevation
   and map coordinates
* The state of the remains
* Were the remains buried? How
* What clothes or wrapping
    surround the remains?
* Anything else that the CSI thinks
   might help inform the process.

Photography is VERY helpful

Video LONG Study (15:11) Prt 1, Canadian entomologist discussing crime.
Video LONG Study (6:42) Prt 2

Okay, let's get to the bugs themselves

English: Describing the relationships between ...
English: Describing the relationships between carrion insect trophic specializations and decomposing remains, adapted and simplified from K.G.V. Smith, A Manual of Forensic Entomology, 1986 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Some terms: 
* Nacrophagous Species - feed on dead things.
* Omniverous Species - will eat most anything
* Predators - come to eat the necrophagous and omnivorous
   species of insects
* Parasites - are brought in by the other insects
* Adventive species - can be particularly informative. If the
   entomologist finds sub-types of species whose habitats are in a 
   different geographical location, they can determine that the body
   had been moved.
    Video Quick Study (1:49) Entomologist looks at the air filter on       a car to determine if the suspect drove  across the United States 
    to commit a murder.

The first on the scene is the blow fly.

English: Sarcophaga (Liopygia) ruficornis fles...
English: Sarcophaga (Liopygia) ruficornis flesh-fly mating.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

* Blow flies can smell death and
   can be there in mere moments.
* They lay their eggs immediately
   in openings. This can
   mean: mouth, eyes, nose, ears, 
   anus and vagina, and
   importantly, wounds. 

Now why is that important? If the remains have decayed past the point of recognition, finding the maggot mounds can help identify where that person might have been injured.

Why might this be bad? - When the eggs hatch and the larvae
starts to eat they are:
* destroying the facial features of the deceased, making
   identification more difficult
* can damage the wound margins making forensic wound study

Quick review of your Biology 101 class - here are the stages of blow fly life:
1. egg is laid - NOTE: flies
    are only active during
    daylight. If the person dies
   at night, the first eggs
   won't be laid until

Video Quick Study (2:11) fly laying eggs on deceased bird.

2. maggots come out and start to consume the corpse
3. larvae grows and eats
4. The larvae are full and stop eating. They migrate away from the
    body to pupate (hard cocoon-like stage while their DNA
    rearranges them into a fly). They like to do this in cool
    conditions. They will crawl under rugs, into the clothing
    especially seams, pockets, and cuffs, or if this isn't available -
5. Pupae - because they change color can be aged to a matter of
6. Emerging as a fly

* This whole cycle takes about 2 weeks depending on:
- Species 
- Weather (warmer temperatures creates more activity)
- Quality of the food
- Oxygen levels
- Day length/season

Video Quick Study (6:52) Close up video of blow fly life cycle.

Video Quick Study - Murder case in Hawaii where the body was wrapped in blankets.

* If a body is discovered in the first month postmortem interval, PMI, entomologists can be accurate to
   within a day.
* After first generation of blowflies has developed, the
   entomologist looks at the succession of insects. This is
   used when the corpse is dead for a month or more. The wave of
   insects overlaps.

Insect Arrival Comes in Waves

English: Blow flies (chrysomya megacephala) on...
English: Blow flies  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1. Flies - attracted by the
   decomposition odor arrive
    immediately. They like fresh
    bodies because of water

Oiceoptoma thoracicum (Silphidae)
Oiceoptoma thoracicum (Silphidae) (Photo credit: gbohne)
2. Carrion Beetles - Arrive in a few days
    during putrefaction stage
    body liquids are starting to expel from
    the corpse, lot's of odor
    more and more insect activity. (flies
    and wasps will also be

Closer view of a carpet beetle
Closer view of a carpet beetle
(Photo credit: Dendroica cerulea)
3. Carpet Beetles - come during the dry stage - skin is hardening
    an becoming leathery, some bone is starting to protrude out of
    decomposition. The carpet beetles come to eat the hair, skin
    and bone. Coffin flies, cockroaches and flies are there as well.

Video Quick Study (8:53) a forensic teacher takes you through the insect stages.
Video Quick Study (7:31) video of an animals decomposition, focusing on insect activity

Interestingly, bugs:
* can carry corpses dna
* can ingest drugs
Video Quick Study (2:45) Student's on site
Video Quick Study (6:38) Student forensic entomologists.

* Bugs can only tell the entomologist how long the body has been
   available to the bugs. So for example, if the body was in a deep
   freezer and then removed  and put in the woods, the timing would
   be based on when the body was available to the bugs.
* In much of Canada and northern United States, cold winter
   months mean entomologists cannot use insects to determine time
   of death.
* In the summer, a body can decompose down to bones in as little
   as two weeks.
* Decomposition in water - standard insects don't apply but other
   organisms do.

CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS / @CSI?cafe (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Collecting insects at a mock crime scene
 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
1. Video Quick Study (3:58) Prt 1
   Video Quick Study (3:32) Prt 2

2. Video Quick Study (1:42) Entomologist testifying
     in Casey Anthony Trial

3. Video Quick Study (1:49) Entomologist looks at
    the air filter on a car to determine if the suspect
    drove across the United States to commit a

See how this article influenced my plot lines in my novella MINE and my novel CHAOS IS COME AGAIN.

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Yup, I'd Say He's Dead All Right: Algor, Livor, and Rigor for Writers


Grave (Photo credit: howzey)
WARNING - this article contains photos of bodies that might be considered graphic or disturbing. Please be aware of your comfort level before reading his post.

Excerpt - CHAIN LYNX

     "Wilson wanted to make sure that he was long gone, and the body was in bad shape when it was found?”
     Deep snorted. “Bad shape, that’s an understatement.”
     “How so?” I asked.
     “It didn’t take the week to find the corpse. The heat in his motel room was on full blast, and they smelled the body from the lobby.”
     “Oh, Gross!”
     Deep waggled his brow. “I’m glad it wasn’t my job to pour him into a bag."

Here's a Video Quick Study (6:11) which humorously goes through the normal steps of what happens from death to interment.

Death is not a pretty sight. It doesn't resemble the Hollywood and television deaths or the deaths often portrayed in literature. There is a series of events that take place. Before we take a quick look at three aspect of decomposition -- algor, livor, and rigor -- let me just address three little sniggly bits. 

1. Urine and Feces - Urine and feces will only leave the body if the bladder or bowl was full.

    The sphincter muscles containing the waste matter relaxes, as do all of the muscles, no longer holding the
     contents inside. If the person has been in the process of dying over many days then they probably have
     not eaten or been hydrated and there is nothing to evacuate. If it is a sudden death, but the person has
     just relieved themselves, they will not eliminate at death.

   "The woman’s lifeless body collapsed like a heap of dirty laundry in front of the door. Urine pooled out from under her." ~ Missing Lynx

Eye death
Eye death (Photo credit: @Doug88888)
2. They close their eyes -Closing one's eyes, as well as
     holding the mouth/jaw shut requires engaged  muscles. At
     death the eyelids will be half open and the jaw will be open
     and off-side. According to my daughter who is a telemetry
     nurse, the mouth slacks and drifts to the side.  
3. Frequently as death approaches the individual will go into a 

    coma or a coma-like state or they become agitated and 
    delusional. From speaking with nurses and hospice workers,
    there is no last second confessional. They go into a state of
    flux, and they expire.

Death is the cessation of all metabolic activity and functions.

1. Legal death can be reversed.
2. Biological death cannot be reversed.

WHAT DOES OCCUR POST MORTEM? How long has this person been dead?

* Breakdown happens because of the lack of body function and an increase in bacteria

   (and other organisms such as bugs).
*  How quickly the body breaks down is largely a function of temperature. 
*  The colder the temperature the slower the chemical changes that breakdown organic matter.
    The cold temperatures also retard organisms such as bacteria and bugs

Video Quick Study (1:08) 5,000 yr old man found frozen in a glacier. The body is amazingly intact.

These changes overlap in time:

Algor Mortis - 

English: Al Gore's Hearing on Global Warming
Photo credit: Wikipedia)

NO! That's Al Gore. We're talking about ALGOR mortis when the dead body cools. 
   * The body loses 2 degrees C. in the first 2 hours and approximately
      1 degree per hour after that. How cool the body gets depends on the ambient temperature.
   * Glaister Equation.Link to formula This is most accurate in a temperature controlled environment.
   * The fatter you are the more you store heat (faster decomposition)
   * Temperature of the body at death also increases decomostion. Did they have a fever? Had they just run
       a marathon?
   * Clothing - More clothes trap more heat.
   * Ambient temperature
      Video Quick Study (5:09)

2. Rigor Mortis - 

   * Rigor mortis first appears approximately 1-2 hours after death. 
   * Progressive stiffening occurs for approximately 12 hours,
      persists for approximately 12 hours, then
      diminishes over the next 12 hours as tissues break down as a
      result of autolysis and putrefaction.LINK
   * Because rigor mortis is a chemical reaction to ATP and has to
      do with shortening the muscle, it is
       interesting to note that in someone who has been physically
       active - fighting or running over a period of
       time - the rigor mortis will set in more quickly.

Video Quick Study (0:48) the difference between cold stiffening and rigor mortis
Video Quick Study (3:10) talking about Michael Jackson and rigor mortis

Livor mortis Deutsch: Totenflecke
Livor mortis Deutsch: Totenflecke (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
3. Livor Mortis - 
   * There is no longer a functioning circulatory system so
      the blood settles where gravity takes it and is seen
      as purplish on the surface of the skin.
   * If an object is laying below the body, such as a
      weapon, it could show up as a lighter spot on the
   * Darker skin makes this harder to see.
   * This takes place for about 8 hours. After 8 hours the
       blood no longer moves even if the body is turned
   * Skin color might provide information about the cause
      of death. For example cherry red is associated with
      carbon monoxyde poisoning and pink is an indicator
      for cyanide.
   *  Marbling may develop with the delineation of the
       vasculature as a result of the reaction of hydrogen
       sulfide produced by bacteria with hemoglobin from the
       lysis of erythrocytes, as shown belowLINK

Marbling outlines the vasculature in this decedentMarbling outlines the vasculature in this decedent as the postmortem interval lengthens.
 4. As the body continues to decompose
    * bacteria increases and produces a gas. 
    * The body might bloat from the gases esp. in the abdomen. It 
       can bloat to the point of bursting. This
       bloating brings bodies to the surface of the water if the person
       drowned or a body was dumped. According to Cookie, a 
       recovery diver who spoke to us at the WPA, the body will float
       around the seventh day and will descend again once the fish,
       birds, etc. who are eating the body poke a hole in the
       tissue allowing the gases to escape. 

See how this article influenced my plot lines in my novella MINE and my novel CHAOS IS COME AGAIN.

Thank you so much for stopping by. And thank you for your support. When you buy my books, you make it possible for me to continue to bring you helpful articles and keep ThrillWriting free and accessible to all.