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Monday, July 8, 2013

Criminal Justice Quote: Establishing Time of Death

     Throughout the long annals of true crime lore, countless murder convictions and acquittals have come down to this: When did the killer strike? When did the victims breathe their last? In the absence of credible witnesses, the lack of an easy answer has bedeviled our criminal justice system since its inception....

     Murder investigators found themselves desperate for clues as to time of death, and not just for evidence of guilt at trial. Knowing when a victim died could speed the earliest stages of an inquest by ruling out suspects with confirmed alibis and focusing scrutiny on those who did not. The postmortem interval, or time since death, proved even more critical in cases where a corpse turned up decomposed beyond recognition. Even an approximate time of death gave investigators a framework in which to connect the remains to a suspicious disappearance.

     Yet for all its importance, determining the time of death has defied the detective's magnifying glass and the pathologist's scalpel for over 2,000 years. Even today, despite crime labs crammed with high-tech equipment for DNA analysis, toxicology, serology, and the detection of rarefied chemical vapors, we remain nearly as blind as the ancient Greeks with their belief in maggots sprouting fully formed and spontaneous from the flesh of the newly dead. [They did not realize that maggots were fly eggs.]

     Nonetheless, it still startles most people to learn that a prudent medical examiner can rarely, if ever, accurately measure the interval between death and a body's discovery....

     The myth of the medical expert's ability to nail down time of death has endured. No doubt this stems in part from the many pathologists who continue to offer more precision in court than their science can rightfully claim. That they do so is understandable enough, given the relentless pressure [put on them by detectives, prosecutors, and the public].

Jessica Snyder Sachs, Corpse: Nature, Forensics, and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death, 2001 

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