By Annette Dashofy
During my final Citizen’s Police Academy class, we were asked to fill out evaluation sheets. On it was a space for what we thought could be improved. Of course, I thoroughly enjoyed the entire experience, but when pressed, I noted that I wished there had been someone from the coroner’s office to discuss forensics.
Last Wednesday, I got my wish. Sort of. It wasn’t with the CPA, but I was able to attend a workshop at an area library with Dr. Edward Strimlan, chief forensic investigator with the Allegheny County Medical Examiners Office. He spoke in a high speed fashion (I’m still not sure if that’s just his style or if he was trying to cram three hours worth of material into an hour and a half, which he did), heavy on the dark humor.
He explained that “forensics” is the application of science to law. And he quickly debunked the CSI shows, noting that DNA cannot be processed in one hour, that no one works in this business wearing high heels and professional makeup, not to mention that upon entering a crime scene, one of the first things he does is turn ON the lights.
He showed a slide from one of the TV crime dramas showing those familiar cubbies, one of which was open and a body was on the pull-out slab. Silhouettes of corpses’ feet could be seen through the translucent glass doors of the other cubbies. He asked what was wrong with this picture. A few suggestions were offered from the crowd. I raised my hand and questioned why there were lights on inside the coolers. This has always bugged me. Dr. Strimlan agreed and pondered if the bodies were reading in there. But the big “what’s wrong with this picture” was actually the individual cubbies themselves. He said the real cooler is one big room holding a bunch of gurneys with bodies. No private rooms at the real morgue.
When the ME investigators first arrive on a scene they photograph everything from every angle from aerial to the most minute detail. They photograph how the body was found. They even take photographs during the autopsy.
Some of the labs at the ME’s office include toxiocology, trace (hair, fibers, etc), serology (blood), DNA, fingerprints, and ballistics. They have a support staff to deal with odentology (teeth and bite marks), neurology, anthropology, entomology, and engineering (to deal with things like circumstance of a structural collapse). For these experts, they draw from local universities. Dr. Strimlan responded to one audience member’s query regarding the authenticity of the show Bones by stating that no one finds that many bones to make keeping an anthropologist on staff realistic. They would just go to the anthropology department at one of the local universities and borrow a professor.
It’s the job of the ME’s office to determine the cause and manner of death. The manner of death can be natural (in which case just about any doctor could sign off on the death certificate), homicide, suicide, accident, pending, or undetermined.
Another bit of news to me is the fact that the OFFICIAL time of death is listed as when the body was found, regardless of how long it might have been there.
At some point during the presentation, I realized I’d heard of this Ed Strimlan before. He figures prominently in the book DEADHOUSE: Life in the Coroner’s Office, which is a fascinating true look at the Allegheny Coroner’s Office. I highly recommend this book for anyone writing about such things or if you want to get an idea of what that life is really like.
The presentation was not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach, as he offered some very real photographs of bodies from crime scenes and asked us to determine if the death shown was natural or suspicious. Let me just say, decomposition can make a natural death look VERY much like the victim had been beaten or worse.
I’m glad I went. I jotted a ton of notes to use in my current work in progress. And this workshop definitely filled the one void in the Citizen’s Police Academy course.
I’m afraid I won’t be available to answer questions today. I’m away on vacation. If I get a chance, I may stop at the library to use their Internet and check in. Otherwise, feel free to discuss murder and mayhem on your own.