“The Body in the Concrete”- Concrete Casket 101.

So last time, I expressed my concern on how the Hong Kong Police and Firemen had mistreated the crucial trace evidence, namely the concrete casket. And I also opposed their methodology. Some of the readers thought that police should be more experienced on handling these cases than me, and also thought that the law enforcement units had made this judgment after chains of thorough thinking.

I supposed I am not in a good position to comment further on how their approach was when they were at the scene. After all, I was not at the crime scene in person. Also, readers state that that was indeed the raw differences between theories, archaeology and the reality. I am only wishing to use the following space to replied to three of the main questions raised by the readers. I have also cited the Los Angeles Medical Examiners case report, in hope of the M.E. would be able to shed some lights on the questions the readers made from their study and research.

Question 1: The size of the concrete casket is too huge! May be they are not scanned because the law enforcement was not able to transfer them for scanning?

If you ever watched any crime shows on TV (of course, Bones is a good example. Everyone will yell “back to the lab!”), you will see they are always able to transfer whichever evidence they found back to the lab before further analyzing. Reality, not so much. This is how Ground Penetrating Radar comes into play. In archaeology, Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) is used to detect and reflect any buried artifacts, monuments, archaeological sites. It is especially handy when archaeologists are about to look for hidden burial sites and buried remains. GPR allows noninvasive examination, and very helpful for experts and scientists to learn about the structure of the hidden architectures and bodies. Furthermore, size of a GPR is only about the size of a vacuum. Some companies even invented the GSSI Mini, which is about the size of a laptop for carrying scientists to have easy access in the field. All GPR and GSSI Mini come with a monitor, and very easy to connect to the laptop. That said, it is easy to document digitally the detected images. One may use slightly more time on using the GPR before stepping or unfold the crime scene, yet save the team and resources from doing extra and additional steps and procedures in the later investigation. In this case, that would be the suspicious broken palm, posture of the body, etc.

Question 2: It was mandatory to crack the concrete casket open, as the body was decomposing already.

News and police report claimed that the concrete casket was dried by the time of discovery. Yet, concrete would not dry but only cure and hardened. The hardening and curing of concrete, in other words, does not come from the evaporation of water from the chemical composition of the concrete. Rather the water molecules have transformed, merged and bonded together with the concrete particles as part of their chemical structure. An experiment pointed out that the mass of concrete before hardening/ curing is about the same with after [1]. The only slight difference between the mass was from the evaporation of the water on the concrete surface that with no cover. Last time, I have also mentioned that concrete is relatively porous. When cement hardens, it means that the water molecules and air molecules have filled in all those pores. This type filling makes concrete looks strong but indeed not. That said, it is relatively soft inside, while the outside of the concrete looks hard.

And for the body that was covered by the concrete, the decomposition of it liquefies from inside to outside, and all the decomposition was triggered by the enzymes in muscles. During the hardening process of the concrete, since it is a exothermic reaction (i.e. it releases heat in the whole process), the interior of the concrete casket would reach 175F in the first few days, which results an acceleration in the decomposition rate. After curing, the concrete becomes a good insulator that blocked the air and heat to reach the body, and thus successfully decrease the rate of decomposition again.

During the stage of decomposition, body liquids (any liquid in the body, you name it :)) would leak out of the body. Normally, as in general when a body is exposed to air, atmospheric air would help evaporate liquids and water. However, when a body like the one in this case is being buried in a concrete casket, all the fluid is trapped in the casket, and at the end turned the soft tissues into a mush. At the end, fluids would leak outside the casket, or concrete casket. This is not only something visual but also would give a strong odor. Evenly so, it does not mean an invasive act should be taken to the casket. Keep in mind that bodies starts breaking down the moment the heart stopped beating.

Question 3: Readers think that using merely textbook archaeology, i.e. using brush in the act, has not thoroughly considered the scenario at scene.

To be honest, this is some attitude that forensic scientists should have and maintain all along. In the forensic field, a lot of the tools we use are indeed very creative. For instance, you would find ladles on the autopsy table to scoop out fluid (for example inflammatory fluids in lungs) during autopsy; also would find those big stock pots in decomp bodies autopsy room for forensic anthropologists to do maceration. All these kitchenware is used with one and foremost premise: will not affect the quality of the collected evidences, or would not contemning evidences.

Los Angeles Medical Examiner Office claimed that there were only 5 cases of concrete casket located, till 2008, in the past 18 years in a report. They also stated in the report that, though cement and concrete affected the calculation or estimation of accurate postmortem interval, at the sam time they welly preserved all trace evidences [2]. In these 5 recorded cases, medical examiners were taken things slow, and excavate the bodies layer by layer in order to estimate the cause of death and time of death. Among all, LA medical examiners also indicated the frequent application of metal detectors and radiography in order to pinpoint the posture of bodes, and location. Sledgehammer and chisel are only implemented in a very much later stage, or only when they are sure it would not damage the body.

Back to the discussion, should we use heavy tools like sledgehammer and chisel, or only brush? Both. The foremost premise here is to not damaging the evidence. Only use heavy tools when the remains inside are well-documented. Also, the methodology with chisel should be go horizontally instead of vertically in order to reveal the context of the casket and the body.

Sad but true, concrete casket or related research is not commonly seen and discussed in the academia. These caskets can only open when all the conditions and situations are well-documented. In delicate crime scene like this one, officials should prioritize the preservation of crime scene in front of investigation just yet.

 

Remarks:

[1] Lesson 5: So, You Think Concrete Dries Out? (n.d.). Retrieved April 11, 2016, from

[2]
Toms, C., Rogers, C. B., & Sathyavagiswaran, L. (2008).
Investigation of Homicides Interred in Concrete—The Los Angeles
Experience. J Forensic Sci Journal of Forensic Sciences, 53(1), 203-207.
doi:10.1111/j.1556-4029.2007.00600.x

“The Body in the Concrete”- Dig or Not Dig, This Is the Question.

On March 30, 2016, Hong Kong local media, Apple Daily reported about a homicide that with a concrete-made casket. The concrete was found in one apartment in one of the neighborhood in Hong Kong, Tsuen Wan. The concrete casket was 1m x 1m x 0.5m and covered with a wooden box, and was placed in the center of the living room. Other than the concrete-wood casket, there were a lot of air-fresheners placed in the living room too. Police and firemen arrived the scene, and found the strong odor is originated from the wooden box in the living room. They decided to crack the casket, and handled the body to the M.E. right out of the casket. From the angle of forensic anthropology, and forensic archaeology, I would like to point out that the methodology police and firemen used to handle the casket is not appropriate.

Recap: Forensic anthropology is the combination of osteology and physical anthropology that applied in the legal context. Usually, forensic anthroplogists would only deal with human remains in advanced decomposition, skeletonization, human bone fragments, burnt remains, or other remains that have difficult time to give a positive identification from soft tissues.

Back to the case, first and foremost, the concrete casket. Concrete is the cured cement. Cement is a relatively alkaline material and very porous in itself. Concrete casket is very effective in insulating the body from contacting the air, which in turn, slows down the reproductive rate of bacteria within the body, as well as decreases the probability for flies laying eggs on the body. For, soft tissues decomposition mostly because the bacteria within digested our body and the occurrences of maggots. These two teeny tiny organisms enjoy the decomposition feast the most! Also, because the concrete could insulate the contact between the air and the body, the decomposition rate in general is slower in the concrete casket than exposing it in the air. That said, if the correct evidence collection methodologies used, a lot of physical, biological and trace evidences would be too preserved in the concrete casket. Therefore, without examine the concrete casket and use chisel or sledgehammer to break the concrete would be one serious wrong move, and here are the three main reasons:

1. Cracking the concrete casket is an invasive act. Once the concrete is cracked and broken, no one could recover it back to the original context. A fluoroscopic examination should be done and evaluated before any invasive act. With today’s technology, it would be easy and efficient to scan the whole concrete block before cracking it open. That way would allow the M.E. and corresponding law enforcement agents have a better understanding with the posture, number of bodies, and position of remains. Also, some of the remains might liquidfy or oxidize once contacted with air because of some chemicals they exposed to before concealed in the concrete. Straightly cracking it open, simply ignored this possibility.

2. Another risk of cracking open the concrete casket directly would be: what if there are more than one body? Although according to the intel and the missing person report, there was only one missing individual, and also because of this, police mainly focuses on looking for this particular person. Yet, if there are really more than one set of remains, directly using a chisel or sledgehammer without scanning the concrete in advance, would possibly damage the remains inside. The concrete casket, like the apartment, is a crime scene. One of the main missions for forensic anthropologist to determine first and foremost, would be the minimum number of individuals, or MNI. Anything in and out of the concrete casket is part of the evidences. Local news report stated that the right hand is cracked and broken because of the cement. Little did we know, if it was broken because of the cracking of casket, and thus resulted this postmortem trauma.

3. Direct usage of sledgehammer and chisel is not recommended. In forensic archaeology, the most useful tools would be those of carpenters–brushes, or even tooth brush. Only after fully documented the conditions of the casket would consider to crack the concrete. And would not use any chisel when getting close to the remains. That way, we could make sure the context of the body is well-preserved and complete-documented. Though this way is slow (could not deny this), yet can protect the remains and preserve the maximum amount of evidences, from pollen to hair to adipocere (aka grave wax).

Though body disposal in concrete is not a common case, it is definitely not the first. When handling body disposal like the abovementioned case, it is very important to keep in mind that speed of cracking the case is the least concern, as you have this fragile and one-time crime scene needed to handle and evaluate in optimum condition.

Forensics Daily #11: Forensic Countermeasures

Q: what is the definition of forensic countermeasures? This phrase sounds fancy!

A: this phrase in fact is pretty self-explanatory. First, you have to understand what “countermeasure” means. “Countermeasure” means an action, an incident, or a process that prevent the normal forensic protocols. It threatens the integrity of the forensic works.

Take an outdoor crime scene as an example. The forensic countermeasure could be the unpredictable rain (though it is a natural one), which would watch away unprotected evidence. It also could be scavenging animals, trespassed people, and so forth. As long as the acts that threatens the validity of forensic evidences that are not yet protected by the chain of evidences, regardless if it is natural or artificial, it is already a sort of forensic countermeasures.

Simple concept but with fancy saying, isn’t it?

Forensics Daily #10: Estimating the Time of Death from Drowning and Remains Found in Water

Q: Is it possible to tell if victims died from drowning and the time of death of remains found in water?
A: yes, for sure there are several ways to tell if the victims were drowned. One of the ways, that is also help determine the time of death of remains found in water is to evaluate the diatom level.
Diatom refers to a diverse group of algae. It has no specific structure or characteristics as it is consider a general term of groups of algae that inhabit the remains. Yet, the migration of diatoms, meaning the sequences of diatoms in the body should tell the time of the body in the water by calculating the schedule.
The same applies to the drowning victim too! Yet, during the drowning process, victim should also have inhaled some of the fresh water (only in fresh water will find diatoms!). So in the lungs, ME should be able to find fresh water and diatoms for calculation, as well as backward calculating the appearance of diatoms in order to work out the time of death.
P.s. Diatoms belongs to the Forensic limnology department, which is a sub-discipline of forensic botany, fyi : ) !

Forensics Daily #9: Dead Wives Tales

Q: are the dead wives tales true at all? Meaning, our nails and hair do grow after we died ?

A: Yes and No. Yes, because it does look like it grows, like illusion. No, because it is NOT REALLY GROWING.. Both hair and nails look like they grow after the heart stopped working because of the skin surrounding them are dehydrated. They shrink, and thus make it appear to be longer. Funeral homes sometimes will moisturize the bodies when they are doing the prep to counteract this.

Other than the hair and nails, the chin also dries out, and pulling towards the back of a skull, thus looks like more prominent. So does the goosebump effect, because of the contraction around the hair muscle (remember we talked about in the last few q&a, after we died, our muscles are not able to relax, not unable to contract!).

These all biological responses give the sense of horror!

Forensics Daily#8: Chain of Evidence?

Q: What is chain of evidence? Is this important?
A: Two solid Yes to the questions! Chain of evidence basically refers to the sequencing of evidences found following to this order:- identification,collection,analysis,storage, preservation, transportation, presentation in court and return to owner/ next of kin. In short, it includes where, when and what the evidence was retrieved from. Also, the chain of people that have handled the evidence are also included in the long description list. This being said, the concept is SUPER important because without the proper chain of evidence executed, the evidence could be contaminated, and resulted from test failure, and more importantly, could be invalidated by the judge and jury. On top of that, this is very important as some crimes could have gone cold yet have not passed the Statute of allegation/Prosecution. The contaminated evidence would not help if in any of the cold case.

Forensics Daily#7: Signs of Biological Death

Q: Seriously, in general, what will happen to our body once our heart stopped?

A: The story goes: when the heart stopped beating, no pressure to chase the blood around, gravity causes the red blood cells sink through and settle in the dependent parts. This results a red/ purplish discoloration, which we called LIVOR MORTIS Then we have RIGOR MORTIS, which is the stiffening in the muscles. It is because the brain stopped working, and stopped RELAXING (Not Contracting) the muscles. As well as, cooling of the tissues or ALGOR MORTIS. The latter two usually kicked in as soon as 20mins after death to 3 hours; capillaries will be congealed in 4-5 hours and maximum livor mortis occurs within 6-12 hours (though size of the patches increase within first 3-6 hours)

Forensics Daily #6: Detecting Blood Stains

FORENSICS DAILY IS BACK!!!!!
Q: If CSI found a possible murder weapon on scene, spotted some red stains on it, and wondered if that was actually blood, what and how to do?
A: CSI would carry out a test called “Kastle-Meyer test”. This test consists of spraying two chemicals to the stain and observe the chemical reaction to it. The two chemicals are Phenolphthalein and Hydrogen peroxide. In general, if there is blood, the swap would fade to pink instantly. The instant change was because the chemicals react with each other under the presence of blood. The instant change was because of the haemoglobin in the blood acted as a catalyst.

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.7: Forensic Photography

So basically, all the parts about forensic Anthropology/ pathology are done. Yet, in a medical examination department, other types of forensics are also as important.

This time, less talk about forensic photography, or known as taking crime scene photos.

Again, being a crime drama maniac like me, I recall in one of the NCIS episode of the Tony and Ziva era (not sure which season though), Tony sometimes used the camera that is for taking crime scene photos to take snapshots of Ziva. Do you think it is appropriate to do that in reality? Can they just delete the useless ones from the memory card?

 

We met the chair/ chief forensic photography of the department during our stay (he is super nice!) and he gave us a series of lecture on taking forensics and crime scene photos. In order to make the photos legit to use on court, there are series of protocols and formats the photographer has to follow. These are all indeed tried to re-present the scene and some of the items from the scene that would help families and victims to find out what happened. For instance:

  • Photographer has to take photos perpendicular to the object.
  • He/she can use a ladder if needed to
  • Photos should be taken with a grey, or white background (the best); never use red background as it is too irritating and mixed up with the color of blood.
  • If it is from autopsy—immediate from the body, cleaned background is required, e.g. with clean towel, cloth, and gloves
  • Scale should be placed nicely
  • Should not have too much reflective surface/ gloss on the photo, thus the angle of using a flash is really crucial.

Photoshop is basically a trend these days, someone might just go and edit the photos and use that for court evidence. The forensic photographer says that there is a series of code hidden in each photo that allows experts like them to check if the photos have been altered. Also, the photo should take in RAW format is also because of this reason.

Also, can the photographer take whatever photos they want with the camera, and delete the unwanted ones? Or, could the photographers delete any mistaken photos (for example, those with wrong format etc.)? The forensic photographer says no to both scenarios. He explained that the attorneys and prosecutor may ask why the names of the photos are not in sequences. And photographer has to show them those are because technical mistakes. Mistaken photos should store in a file indicating the technical problems are found in these photos. For the second question, the forensic photographer explains that photographers could not use the camera for taking forensic photos to take any pictures that are not case related, such as selfies. So the situation from NCIS could not happen in real life.

There is another kind of forensic photography that is to take photos with a high speed camera. The high speed camera is really amazing. It helps demonstrate the progression and the travel of the bullet, as well as the how the force of the projectile hit the target. That said, it means we have to go to the gun range, which happens there is one in the facility.

 image

Yup, that’s me putting the paly-doh on death row! And he is the forensic photographer, Lenny 🙂

image

This is the work of a high speed camera from another group. So cool, right?

The more obstacles the bullet has to get through, the less would the last obstacle would break. Though it is simple physics on energy transmission, seeing it by my own eyes makes it totally different. Our group played with balloon and play-doh. The projectile has enough energy to break the play-doh into pieces. For the balloon, because it is “fragile”, even reduced amount of energy would be able to get it burst. I felt bad for the play-doh splashed on the black background in the studio.

Previous Episodes:

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series : Prelude

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.1: Getting to the Bones…

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.2: Two Lives in One Body…

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.3: Bone Donation

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.4: Two Cases (and bone overgrown on the skull)

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.5: Gunshot and Projectile Trauma

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.6: Forensic Concerns Behind the Bodies..

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.2: Two Lives in One Body…

The medical examiner office begins a normal day with a morning case meeting. The meeting will basically “talk” (you will know why it is quoted later) about the cases they received since yesterday afternoon to that morning.

We went to the morning case meeting every day. Honestly, I was expecting a more structured meeting instead of a casual one like this. Morning case meeting begins with a summary of number of cases, and certain basic profile of the cases. For example, name of the deceased, ancestry, age, where was the last where-about. If the deceased was from a crime scene, the M.E. at the scene and the death investigator are also listed on the sheet. Of course, each case summary comes with a summary of the preliminary conditions of the expired body.

The M.E. will pick the cases they are going to work on later that morning for autopsies. The death investigator, who chaired the meeting (literally everyday) had already prepared all the related case files on the conference table. Once the doctor has picked the case(s), they will start referring to the pathological histories in order to get hold of the details of deceased’s life. And the meeting ends when all the cases are claimed. Doctors will leave when they want to. It’s quite different from what we encounter on TV, at least in my interned facility.

Autopsy usually begins 30 mins to an hour (depends on if the body is ready or arrived) after the meeting. And this particular day I am talking below was very busy as they have 8 cases came in and to take care of.

Out of the eight, we observed the one with a pregnant woman and an unborn child.

First thing they did in the autopsy was to confirm if the lady was really pregnant, as “she was obese and pregnant” was stated in the description in the case. They first tried to locate her uterus, examined the conditions of it, and confirmed she was pregnant.

The autopsy was normal in terms the conditions of organs, and the conditions of the unborn child. The M.E. claims that the more normal the deceased body is, the higher the chance will be getting a positive toxic screening. That is to say, it is more likely to be a homicide, or sometimes suicide.

The autopsy of the unborn child strikes me. When the doctor just opened up the lady’s uterus, and brought out the placenta, together with the “water”, it hits me. The baby looked so matured—you can see her features on both faces and limbs are all developed. I know to be an expert that works with death a lot would definitely come across this kind of tragic event, and definitely have to learn to deal with it. It does not mean that I cannot handle it, but I did question myself continuously who would do that to a mother-to- be and an innocent baby. This simple question explains the need of forensic specialists around the globe, as they can help provide closure to families. Of course, it would not be possible to provide closures for every family like justice is always restored in TV criminal dramas but definitely try to do so for as many families as they can.

After finished with the mother’s autopsy, we were discussing should we do the autopsy to the baby as well. The responsible M.E. said usually they do not if there is no signs showing the baby may be got harmed. But later, they decided to go with a green light.

Opening up a developing fetus was not easy! The whole body is still pretty soft and fragile. The body development of a fetus is fascinating. Seeing all the organs develop and grow from such a small size to a fully developed size amuses me. The most amusing part is the softness of the brain of the fetus. It is super soft to an extent that is nearly liquefied when they cut the brain open. The fully developed adult brain does not solidify much. It is still soft but at least it held its shape.

Previous Episodes:

Prelude

Forensic Anthropology Internship Series Ep.1: Getting to the Bones…