“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.

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.

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

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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..