“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.

Crisis in Forensic Sciences, or Not?

Forensics is trusted by the authorities on convicting criminals for more than a century. Fingerprints, blood splatters, DNA, bit marks, shoe impressions, etc. are solid physical evidences that can associate a person with the crime, crime scene, or even put him on death row. Yet, forensic sciences are under strict scrutiny in the recent years. A lot of misjudgments are convicted because of wrong forensics.

The father back to the crime scene with Detective Stabler, the DA and the independent investigator/ professor for reenactment. (Source: Screen shot from Torch, Law & Order Season 11)

 If you are a crime drama fan like me, you may have watched every episode of Law & Order, CSI, or NCIS, to name a few. Yet, when talking about forensic scrutiny, Torch, an episode from Law & Order Season 11 particularly rings a bell.

 Let me walk you through the storyline:

The episode begins with an apartment caught a fire in the middle of the night, and two young girls died in a burning house. They were left in the house by their father, not because he did not try to save them. He did, yet the fire was too vigorous. He failed and burnt his hand. The (SENIOR, as he claimed himself) fire marshal concluded the fire was set by the father with incorrect assumptions he made. These assumptions were disarmed by an independent investigator/ professor, together with a real reenactment of the scenario—burning the DA’s house!

This episode alerts the public the danger of forensic sciences, or the danger of junk sciences. In fact, it does not only happen in drama but happens frequently in the reality.

In the documentary Forensics in Trial (watch here), it criticizes and investigates the uniqueness of fingerprints, the science-ness of bite marks. Jessica Gabel, a law scholar, commented that “forensic bit mark evidence is more art than science;” a lot of interpretation is needed indeed. In this case, should we still trust forensic sciences (are we, the forensics lovers living in our little fantasy)?

Both DNA and autopsy are hard sciences. The former is chemistry, and the latter is biology/ human anatomy. Are these two secure enough to convict crimes? Autopsy, for instance, may not be as accurate as it is. In the recent Michael Brown case, the autopsy is problematic. Shawn Parcells, the man that assisted in Michael Brown’s autopsy has his credentials questioned. He presented himself, according to Mail Online, as a pathologist even though he was not.

DNA, a well-known crime conviction technique, plays a critical role in cases such as the famous OJ Simpson case. Even the DNA evidence ties OJ Simpson to the crime scene, it took the jury only four hours to decide he is not guilty. Why? Because the plaintiff could not prove the evidences are beyond reasonable doubt in order to convict OJ Simpson. Part of the doubts is the legitimacy of evidence. The evidences had lost the chain of custody; police were accused for contaminating the crime scene, and plated evidence to frame Simpson. These all come together to show that even though the person was guilty, once the evidence did not speak the exact same story, no crime will be convicted.

By the same token, in 2012 a forensic chemist named Annie Dookhan had falsified thousands of drug tests. She had also mixed up evidence samples, fabricating results so as to be the most productive chemist in the lab, and lied about credentials.

All these examples just to illustrated one thing: it is not the science is false but the interpretation, and the person who interpreted the evidences are fractured. Quoting attorney McShane from Dookhan case, saying “a forensic scientist in a courtroom is that of a neutral scientists, not as part of the prosecution team…it’s the duty of a toxicologist to focus on the chemistry and the pharmacology not to concentrate on the conviction.”

Like any crime drama, people working in forensics and law enforcement do have a sense of justice, and what does it mean to each of them. One should not forget that being a good scientist, or even just law enforcement agent, professionalism and open-minded thinking are both critical.

The coolness of forensics is the accuracy of conviction. Mistaking one step would make killers walk free, while sending innocents to jails, even on death row.

Resources:

The OJ Simpson Case

Spargo, Chris. 2014. “The mystery of Shawn Parcells: How forensics ‘expert’ without a medical degree assisted in Michael Brown’s autopsy amid claims he stole a body and lost a brain.” Mail Online.

Trager, Rebecca. 2014. “Hard Questions After Litany Of Forensic Failures At US Labs.” Chemistry World.

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

In this morning meeting, other than the five cases listed on the sheet, one extra case came in (if you do not understand what meeting or what is the sheet I am referring to, you may want to skim through this post first). It was a male that found in a canal.

According to the death/ medical investigator, he is a native American, and the family requested no autopsy due to their (religious) belief. The M.E. suggested doing an external autopsy and documentation of the body. This is the first time I encounter and realize pathologists’ hand could be tied not only because of family requests, but also jurisdiction.

According to American Indian Law, the Native Americans have their own police and they have jurisdiction on every member of the reservation, regardless they are indeed inside or out of the reservation.

While doing the external, the first thing the M.E. pointed out is the foam the coming out from the deceased mouth, which indeed is a mix of body fluids, and blood. This is always the sign of drowning as water has entered the thoracic cavity. Also the purplish color of the deceased face that stopped at his clavicles (the collar bones) is also a sign of drowning. Since the pathologist cannot open up the body, the M.E. only can examine him via external traumas. He suspects that is a blunt force trauma by touching the deceased’s head, as well as there are wounds on both interior parietal bones. A theory has it that he might be unconscious after his car hit on an object, and also because he was not wearing a seat belt, he was possibly then fell into a canal after that. That’s pretty much the info we could get from an external autopsy. The body was claimed by the Reservation jurisdiction later that afternoon.

On top of that, there was one decomposing body for autopsy today. According to the police, it is in its “advanced stage of decomposition”. According to forensic anthropologists, bodies that undergo advanced stage of decomposition should be “sagging of flesh; caving of abdominal cavity; loss of internal organs; extensive maggot activity; mummification of outer tissue; less than half of the skeleton exposed; adipocere may be present.” (Byers 100)  This stage suggests partial skeletonization and not much soft tissues on the remains. Yet, the body was in fact only in its primary decomposition stage OR just passed the primary decomposition stage and entering the advanced decomposition stage at most. (According to Byers (100), primary composition stage requires “some flesh relatively fresh; decoloration can vary from gray to green or brown to black; some skin slippage and hair loss; body bloated or deflated; skin may have leathery appearance.”) This is the first time for me to encounter the differences of classifications between the legal forces and pathologists/ anthropologists.

Though I remembered that my professor mentioned once in my forensic class, I never knew that there would be such a difference. This kind of makes you wonder what can be done to make the whole observation process or the examination process more in line with each law enforcement agents, in order to speed up the investigation.

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

Resources:

American Indian Law

Byers, Steven N.. (2011). Introduction to Forensic Anthropology. 4th edition. Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, pp. 100.

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

Trauma affects the skeleton via fracturing and dislocating the bones, which would disrupt the blood and nerve supply. Studying the osteological trauma can possibly tell the violence happened. There are three types of fractures: traumatic fracture, pathologic fracture, and periprosthetic fracture. Among these, we are going to discuss traumatic fracture, particularly from projectile trauma here with reference to the real case I encountered in the morgue.

The deceased was a male, in late twenties or early thirties. He expired at 6 am and two hours later, he is with us in the morgue. According to the death investigator back from the crime scene, he attempted to kill his girlfriend and suicide. His girlfriend survived, but not him.

Externally, there is one bullet hole on each side of the skull. According to the external condition, it is possible that the wound on the right would be the entrance wound, and the left would be the exit wound. Yet, it is the otherwise when we have shaved his hair and opened up the skull.

After shaving his hair however, the beveling is really clear. Judging from the projectile fracture and the beveling, the exit wound would be on the right and the entrance would be the wound on the left.

Trajectory of the projectile, usually gunshot wounds, can be located and identified as either penetrating when no exit wound is found, or perforating that a projectile has an entrance and exit like the captioned case. Crime investigation unit will usually use color stick to link the trajectory for verification. Speaking of beveling, a skull contains layers—inner and out table. The force of the projectile would impact differently on the layers, and caused differences performances on entrance and exit spot. Generally speaking, when a bullet enters it produces a sharp-edged on the outer surface of the skull, but “beveled-out” on the inner surface, and this is called internal beveling.

Internal beveling (Source: the University of Tennessee, Department of Anthropology)

External beveling is usually seen on the exit wound—the outer surface beveled out.  Yet occasionally would also be seen on the entrance site, depends on the way of holding the projectile and the distance of the projectile from the head. There is also one condition called the keyhole, which would only be seen when the entrance and exit wound overlapped.

External beveling (Source: the University of Tennessee, Department of Anthropology)

Keyhole wound (Source: the University of Tennessee, Department of Anthropology)

So, the entrance wound for this case is on the left and the exit on the right, does it mean the deceased is left-handed? According to the M.E., he stated that there are indeed studies done and show that no relevance with hand preferences to pull the trigger.

The M.E. also pointed out that sometimes blunt force and projectile force trauma may not directly fatal. The energy from the trauma could be transmitted and make the brain tissue hit on the foramen magnum that creates a second wave of trauma. That would delay the death a little.

Also, on the other case that another M.E. was working on, they found negative results from autopsies on cause of death. They found only hemorrhage in his brain but the skull did not fracture at all. He decided to open up the deceased at the back and see if they can trace fractures, possibly compression fracture on the neck and the spine that would cause instant death, and the autopsy later confirmed this manner of death.

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…