February 22-26

Jeff was on call this week, but once again no calls came in while I was at the office and overall it was just a very slow week. On Monday, Gary and I took a family to the morgue to see their loved one who had committed suicide. Usually we don’t take families to the morgue, but they were from out of town so it was a special case. That was really all we did on Monday, other than scanning case files into the system. The older files are being taken to a different storage place to make room, so they all had to be entered into a system electronically.  On Tuesday, once again no calls came in, and no one was at the office, so I ended up leaving an hour early.

Wednesday and Thursday were basically the same. No calls came in, so I just hung out with Gary and did some homework. Friday was a little more interesting. I was assigned the official paper shredder, so I did paper runs to the shredder for Dee. We had a hot dog party for lunch and my official nickname of “Red” was given to me. Then Jeff took me with him to make a notification, which ended up being a total bust. We were going to notify a man that his mother had been found dead that morning, but the apartment that was listed as his address was occupied by someone else and no one knew where he moved to. So we ended up going to Sunrift and getting new diving equipment that Jeff can use when recovering bodies from water. We also went to a shop to get extra keys made for Jeff’s truck since he locked himself out last week. After that, we went back to the office and Gary and I watched Chicago Fire for 30 minutes until Hulu crashed. So then we played with Ino until 4:30 when it was time to go home.

I am still enjoying my internship, even though the past 2 weeks have been a little slow. I am planning on using a prearranged absence day soon so that I will be able to go to the office in the morning and hopefully see some autopsies and be able to go on another call.

Detection Dogs

Because dogs have a much better sense of smell than humans, they are often trained and used to detect scents that humans can’t pick up on. There are a few different types of detection dogs, and the differences are important when considering what dog to use for a specific task. The handler, or person training and working with the dog, also needs to be able to read the dog well and pick up on if the dog is detecting something or not.

Types of detection dogs:

  1. Narcotics dogs – they are trained to pick up the scent of drugs and are commonly used at airports. With enough training, they will be able to pick up on the scent of drugs even when it is being masked with another scent.
  2. Tracking dogs – these dogs are trained to sniff a scent and follow only that scent. For instance, if a suspect of a crime is on the run, the handler can have the dog smell something belonging to the suspect such as a pillowcase or a piece of clothing. The dog will then follow that specific scent wherever it is present and can lead investigators to the suspect.
  3. Bomb detection dogs – these dogs are trained to sniff out any substance of a bomb if it is present. It is trained to not disturb a scene, as an explosive could detonate, but will alert its handler to the presence of a bomb.
  4. Arson detection dogs – a dog trained to detect arson will sniff out the presence of accelerants commonly used by arsonists. Especially in a case where the damage of the fire covers a large area, these dogs are extremely valuable to show investigators where accelerants were used.
  5. Search and rescue dogs – when someone goes missing or is lost, these dogs are used. They are trained to be useful in a variety of environments, such as in snow or in heavy water.
  6. Body detector dogs – sometimes in situations like a landslide or earthquake, people may be trapped in the aftermath but are still alive. It is in situations like this that body detector dogs are brought in to find living humans so they can be rescued.
  7. Cadaver dogs – these dogs are trained to respond to decomposition, so when the presence of a decedent is suspected, these dogs are brought on scene to lead investigators to the body.
  8. Human remains specialist dogs – these dogs begin as cadaver dogs in general, sniffing out the presence of any decomposition. They are then further trained to respond only to a specific type of human remains.

The importance of these dogs is often not realized by the general public. I did not realize how important they were either, until I started at the coroner’s. They have a cadaver dog, Ino, that stays at the office and is used to detect decomposition. Recently Ino hit on a body of water where someone told investigators that someone committed suicide. Investigators have been diving there the past few days trying to recover a body. The work of detection dogs can be invaluable in their line of work, so it is essential that they be trained correctly to do their specific job.

Source: “Forensic Detection Dogs.” Kryptiks Lair German Dogs. N.D. Web. 27 February 2016.

February 15, 17-19

Monday I had off from school, so I was able to go to the office a few hours earlier than usual. Kent was on call this week, so I was hoping that something would happen because I had not gotten to ride with him yet to a scene. No calls came in, and the office ended up closing at 1:30 because of weather. So all I ended up doing on Monday was fetching Bojangles and doing homework.

The same happened on Wednesday and Thursday – no calls came in while I was there, and for some reason it seemed like no one was ever at the office. All I did on both days was do homework. Friday was a little more interesting but not by much. Kent had gone out earlier for a baby death and there had also been a natural but that was it. Kent and Teri knew I was in the office, but Mike didn’t, and while I was there a call came in for a gunshot victim. For some reason Mike went on the call instead of Kent, I did not even know a call came in, and Mike didn’t know I was at the office, so from all that confusion Mike accidentally left me behind. Gary thought it was hilarious. I was not as amused.

Hopefully something will happen next week while I am there, because sitting there doing nothing gets old pretty quickly and there is only so much homework I can do before I want to throw myself into traffic.

Determining the Time of Death

The time of death is as simple as it sounds – it is the time at which someone dies. Time of death is categorized into 3 different types:

  • Physiological time of death: this is the time at which the person’s organs stop functioning and shut down.
  • Estimated time of death: this is an educated guess on time of death based on any information available to investigators.
  • Legal time of death: this is “time at which the body was discovered or physically pronounced dead by another individual” (“Estimating”).  Legal time of death is the time that is entered on a death certificate.

One method of determining time of death is to take the temperature of the decedent. Investigators use a math equation to help decide how long the person has been dead. Temperature can be taken using a rectal thermometer or by measuring the temperature of the liver, which provides a more accurate core temperature. When taking temperature, the location the body was found in must be taken into account as well. If a body was found in the middle of winter in a lake, that will affect the temperature reading.

Rigor mortis can also help investigators determine the time of death. Rigor mortis is the “natural contracting and relaxation of the body’s muscles caused by changes in the body’s chemical balances” (“Estimating”). Rigor begins in the smaller muscles and works its way through the body. It begins soon after death and can last up to 30 hours after the person has died. It will leave the body eventually, so if a body is found and rigor is not present, it can be concluded that the decedent passed more than 30 hours previously.

For example, there was a man I took the fingerprints of my first week at my internship. Normally the elbow is bent so fingerprints are easier to take, but the man was still in rigor. Time of death had already been determined because there were witnesses to his death, but if it had been unknown, the rigor present in his body could have been a clue.

The insects found at a scene (as gross as it sounds) can also be used to estimate death. The insects present and how far along they are in their life cycle can provide insight to investigators.

When time of death is not known, investigators have a variety of ways to help them estimate the time of death. This can be valuable especially to death investigations when time of death can narrow down a suspect list.

Source: Claridge, Jack. “Estimating The Time of Death.” Explore Forensics. 21 Feb. 2016. Web. 19 Feb. 2016.

February 8-9, 11-12

Not much happened on Monday (2/8) as the only thing going on was paperwork, as usual. Tuesday was a lot more interesting. I was at the office for about an hour before there was some chatter on the radio about EMS, cardiac arrest, CPR, and then canceling EMS and a signal 9 went out, meaning someone had died. Teri got the call to go the scene a few minutes after, so we went out to the house of the decedent and Gary followed in his car. The man had obviously been dead for a little while as some decomposition had begun. We were at the house for a little over two hours, and in that time, we got all the man’s personal information (name, social, next of kin, etc.), took all the necessary pictures (I got to take a few of those and I was very proud of them), determine there was no foul play involved in the death, and removed the body from the house. After that, Teri took me to the hospital to register the man in the system.

On Wednesday I was unable to go to the office, which ended up being fine because no calls came in anyway. On Thursday I got to the office just in time to go to an autopsy (the first one I’ve seen from start to finish) with Teri for a call she had gotten the night before. The woman’s cause of death could not be determine from the circumstances, which is why an autopsy was needed. I had to put on shoe covers, a long-sleeved gown, gloves, a face mask, and glasses to protect myself from anything that might have taken flight and hit me during the autopsy. I won’t go into much gross detail, but the medical examiner was extremely helpful in explaining what he was doing and how he was examining each organ. He showed me the pieces of organs that were being sent to the lab and how those are chosen. I was able to hold part of the liver that was being sent to be further examined in the lab. After the autopsy is over, the organs were bagged and placed in the body and the body was then stitched up and was ready to be sent to the funeral home.

autopsy pic copy

The above is the best picture I could get of what I had to wear to the autopsy since obviously I can’t be up in the morgue taking selfies. This is standard of what the deputy coroner or anybody else has to wear. The pathologists and medical examiners wear similar things, but just a little more heavy duty since they are actually performing the autopsy.

No calls came in on Friday, so I spent my time fetching papers, raiding the candy jar, and running from the janitor who threatened to suck my hair into the vacuum. Everyone at the office is great to be around, and they know how to have fun while still being responsible and getting their job done. I am so incredibly happy that this whole project worked out to give me the opportunity to intern at the coroner’s office.

Toxicology

Toxicology is used to determine the presence or absence of toxins or poisons in the body. Death investigators will often send a specimen to a lab for testing to determine what was in someone’s body when he or she died. Toxicology results can take weeks to come back with results, but the report can be extremely valuable to an investigation, so the wait is worth it.

Specimen types:

  • Blood, Urine, Liver

Blood is the most common specimen sent away for testing in a forensic lab. Blood testing is especially important after a hospital death, because if poisoning is suspected, blood samples taken right after admission and immediately after death are testing to see the differences in the samples. Taking blood samples to be sent away can be complicated especially when the body is in decomposition. Urine is helpful when determining what drugs had previously been in the body but have had time to process through the body. The liver is sometimes sent for testing because “it is where the body metabolizes most drugs and toxicants” (“A Simplified Guide”). This means that even if the presence of drugs is not detected in the blood, it can be in the liver because drugs become concentrated in the liver.

 

  • Vitreous Humor

Vitreous humor is the substance that is located in the eye. It is most commonly tested for blood alcohol concentration because alcohol concentrations are a little higher in the vitreous humor than in other parts of the body.

  • Stomach Contents

Because toxins are sometimes ingested by mouth, they’ll end up in the stomach at some point. If someone dies soon enough after taking the drugs, they might still be somewhat intact in the stomach during an autopsy. Identifying the drugs present is easier when they are undissolved or still partially intact.

  • Bone, Hair, and Nails

Bones can contain toxins, but they are not usually used because it is often not possible to determine when the toxins were deposited. Hair is often sent to be tested for the presence of drugs or alcohol, and the same goes for finger or toenails.

The substances that are usually tested for in post-mortem toxicology include alcohol, analgesics, antidepressants, antihistamines, antipsychotics, benzodiazepines, cardiovascular drugs, marijuana, cocaine, and stimulants. The analysis is performed by forensic toxicologists, who are trained specifically for this job. There are four conclusions the toxicologists can come to when testing a substance:

  • true-positive: the presence of a drug is correctly identified
  • false-positive: a drug is identified when it is not present
  • true-negative: the absence of a drug is correctly identified
  • false-negative: a drug is not identified when it is present

Toxicology can be extremely important in a death investigation. A toxicology report can show cause of death or detect that foul play was involved in a death. Toxicologists have invaluable jobs and it is important that drug analysis is done correctly.

Source: “A Simplified Guide to Toxicology.” Forensic Science Simplified. 2013. Web. 12 Feb. 2016.

 

Drug Analysis

Forensic drug chemistry can be used in a variety of circumstances. One of the main purposes of testing is for use in court. Forensic chemists are often called upon to testify in court about their results and the procedures they used to analyze the samples.

Drugs can come in many shapes and forms. They can be “pills, powders, liquids,” mushrooms or leaves, “crystalline materials,” or be inserted into other materials like paper. Any number of items can be seized when investigators collect evidence, such as “the substance itself, containers used to transport the substance, utensils used to manufacture or use the substance, or in the case of manufacturing, the component chemicals used to create an illegal substance” (“A Simplified Guide”). Any evidence that is gathered is photographed and sealed up then sent to the lab for further testing.

The image above is crystal meth that had been seized by investigators.

Analysis is performed by trained drug chemists because of the importance that the results are accurate. Generally there are three steps to the testing process. The first is a weight test. This just determines the net weight of the sample and helps determine if there is enough of a substance present to be tested.

The second step is presumptive testing. This step, also called screening, “determines the general characteristics of the sample material and allows analysts to narrow down the field of confirmatory tests that will be used” (“A Simplified Guide”). Presumptive tests can include microscopic (examines structure of the sample), microcrystalline (crystals of the substance are grown and looked at under polarized light), ultraviolet spectroscopy (putting a UV light on a substance and observing how the material absorbs the light), and gas chromatography (primarily used to distinguish the different parts of a sample).

The third step is confirmatory testing. During this process, the sample is separated and the parts are compared with known materials. Several processes can be used to separate the compounds: gas chromatography (“dissolving the material in a liquid solvent, injecting the liquid into a superheated oven, vaporizing the liquid and pushing it through a very small, very long, glass capillary tube using a carrier gas such as helium or hydrogen. The mixture separates into individual chemical components inside the tube”), liquid chromatography (basically the same process as gas chromatography except the superheated oven step is removed. The material is dissolved and put straight into the tube), capillary electrophoresis (when the compound is inside the previously mentioned tube, an electrical field separates the parts), and wet chemistry (uses “liquid solvents to separate compounds”).

Some tools used in the identification processes are mass and infrared spectroscopy. Mass breaks apart the components of a substance using an electron beam. Infrared uses infrared light to determine the components in a sample. Different substances absorb light differently than others, and that information is compared to known reference materials to decide what a material is.

The process of identifying a material is a long and involved one, and it is very important that the technician performing the analysis is trained properly so the results of the analysis are accurate.

Source: “A Simplified Guide to Forensic Drug Chemistry.” Forensic Science Simplified. 2013. Web. 6 Feb. 2016.