Police procedures at death scenes–Part 4
At the end of the previous installment, I discussed various methods for determining how long a person has been dead. This time, we’re going to take a look at the manner of death: suicide, accidental, and natural.
In a typical case of natural death, the signs are obvious. In fact, our department policy is that if the death appears completely natural to the responding officer (and to the attending emergency medical personnel), the crime scene unit doesn’t need to respond. This would include cases of terminally ill patients, especially those who are home on hospice care, waiting to die. The elderly would fall into this category for the most part, but not always. I just watched a video recapping an 80-year-old and an 81-year-old, both of whom completed an Ironman race in Hawaii. Granted, that’s an extreme example, but it serves the purpose to demonstrate that just because someone has reached their elder years, it doesn’t necessarily mean their health is fragile. If the deceased was in their 80s but was in decent health and exercised regularly, I’d definitely want to take a closer look at the situation.
Some situations appear, at first glance, to be a brutally violent death scene, when in truth it was a natural death. One example would be an alcoholic’s death. Cirrhosis of the liver is a messy, painful way to die. When I’ve shown up at these scenes, the house is in disarray, and blood spatter covers the walls. As the alcoholic is dying, the lungs begin to fill with blood. Every expired breath projects blood across the room. Due to the extreme pain involved, the alcoholic thrashes about, overturning tables and making the room look as if there was a fight. In truth, the death is a natural one, albeit self-inflicted. A gastrointestinal bleed, usually associated with colon cancer, is even messier. In addition to the blood around the body, the contents of the intestine spill out to add to the scene. I don’t think I need to go into too much detail for you to picture that one.
Accidental deaths come in many forms. The most common version is the traffic accident. Depending on the jurisdiction, the number of fatal crashes can vary widely. We average 9 per year, although we’ve seen as many as 26 traffic fatalities in a calendar year. In some cases, the injuries are internal and don’t show up right away, leaving the investigator wondering what happened (until the autopsy). In others, usually involving high speeds or an occupant not wearing a seat belt, the damage to the body can be quite horrific. In one case I handled, a man who was driving his Mustang around 130 mph lost control and flipped it several times. Although he was still wearing his seatbelt, his mangled body was outside the car when we arrived.
An interesting side note to the traffic crash (for writers, anyway) is the possibility of disguising a homicide as a traffic fatality. Whether the killer beats the victim to death before staging a crash, or deliberately pulls into the path of an oncoming vehicle in order to kill his passenger, it could make for an interesting plot.
As a certified Traffic Accident Reconstructionist, I can go to a crash scene and, in most cases, determine exactly what happened. I can calculate vehicle speeds before impact, at the time of the collision, and from the impact to the point of final rest. Using that information, I can determine fault and make a statement regarding what could have been done to prevent the crash. I’ve used these techniques on many occasions to refute a driver’s testimony (or even that of witnesses) as to what happened. But the one thing that would be difficult, if not impossible, to show would be the driver’s intent.
Aside from vehicles, there are a number of other commonly encountered accidental deaths. Drowning is another common incident, and while the vast majority of these deaths occur in water, there are also industrial accidents that lead to drowning in a wide variety of fluids. There are actually two types of water-based drowning deaths. In the first, the urge to breathe causes a sudden inhalation, forcing water into the lungs. At autopsy when the lungs are removed, the pathologist will squeeze water from the lungs to demonstrate this type of drowning. In the other, the larynx spasms and shuts off the flow to the lungs. The water then enters the stomach instead, and the victim dies of hypoxia (suffocation).
Another classification for death scenes is suicide. For writers, this one should be the most interesting because it opens the opportunity for a homicide to be disguised as a suicide. We see a wide variety of methods, although firearms seem to be the most prevalent for us. Men tend to shoot themselves in the head, for obvious reasons. Women who use firearms usually shoot themselves in the chest, most likely to preserve their faces for the funeral.
Here are a couple of interesting notes about firearm suicides. With pistols and rifles, you never know what the bullet will do. It may become lodged in the body, either intact or in fragments. Usually it will go completely through, sometimes piercing walls, while other times ricocheting around. With shotguns, when used to the head, it’s the gasses that cause death, not the projectiles. I’ve only seen one case where the BB’s from a shotgun blast hit the far side of the skull. The expanding gasses force the brain out of the body by explosively opening a hole in the skull. So the type of shell used is irrelevant.
Hanging is another method of choice. Usually, the person will find a way to get their feet off the ground, which makes death quicker and makes it more difficult to back out once it begins. Some people will hang themselves from their knees–tie the ligature around the neck and lean into it until they lose consciousness. Either way, the ligature will leave impressions in the soft skin of the neck. At autopsy, the pathologist will attempt to show a similarity between the marks on the neck and the texture of the ligature.
A final note on suicides: While in fiction it’s a simple matter to paint a homicide to look like a suicide, in reality it would be more difficult. The problem is that, aside from cops, no one knows what a real suicide scene looks like, as compared to a homicide. The suspect would make too many mistakes in trying to set the scene up to look like a suicide, raising the suspicions of the investigating officers. But for a novel, it makes for great reading.
Next time, we’ll move on to questionable death scenes and homicides.