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Thursday, March 6, 2014

Criminal Justice Quote: Estimating Time of Death

     Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, pathologists and toxicologists have continued to fill forensic science journals with reports of potential new indicators of time of death. Some of the most promising have included a gradual rise in potassium levels in the eye's jellylike vitreous humor and the waning ability of the cadaver's muscles to respond to mild electric shock. Yet every such stopwatch has eventually proved inadequate when applied to actual murder, in all its controlled-experiment-defying depravity.

     Still, 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 this is understandable enough, given the relentless pressure. "It's a question almost invariably asked by police officers, sometimes with touching faith in the accuracy of the estimate," wrote famed English pathologist Bernard Knight in the 1960s. "It's one of the most common questions I get," echoed Missouri medical examiner Jay Dix forty years later. "I have to tell them--it's impossible." Yet Dix--one of the nation's top pathologists and the author of the 1999 forensic atlas Time of Death, Decomposition, and Identification--sees it done all the time. "I'm continually reviewing cases in which pathologists pinpoint death to within a few hours," he said. "Not that I've ever seen a case where it was appropriate."

Jessica Snyder Sachs, Corpse, 2001

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