The autopsy room is cold. The lights are brightest over the naked body on the stainless steel bed. The laminar air-flow hood above the dead man attempts to remove airborne debris and the unmistakable, sweet smell of human flesh from the work area but mostly fails.
The Medical Examiner leans in: gowned, masked, gloved and visor down. His chest, stomach, hands and arms are covered with blood. He talks non-stop into his headset. The circulating staff dutifully retrieves tissue and fluid samples as if they are the only ones in the room, humming and processing each with the efficiency of a forensic android. Deaners are up to their elbows removing and passing organs to waiting hands…the M.E. inspecting and sectioning and telling deaners to step aside for closer looks into the gaping body cavity. And standing next to the M.E. is the Field Agent, the veteran I watched work my first death scene, the one who said the multiple gunshot wounds to the chest was a suicide…before we even got out of the car.
The revelation came as a matter of fact. Mr. X was one case. There were seven more bodies on gurneys in the walk-in refrigerator that the M.E. would get to before lunch. Each had a story to tell. Each was a mystery waiting to be solved. But Mr. X was my first case to witness. Mr. X was wronged. I felt now it was my responsibility to speak up, to be sure his death was not swept under the rug…or worse yet, missed because of a lazy, over worked, burnt out, old, jaded, forensic investigator…the vet.
The Medical Examiner spoke with confidence and unquestionable expertise. He had seen thousands and knew his work well.
“Mr. X has a single, fatal gunshot wound to the heart. Four of the bullets traveled into the upper left chest. Contact wounds lessened with each entry site revealing a relaxing of the gun. And each entrance wound dropped from upper left to lower center, the last GSW was directly into the heart and the end of shooting pattern. The last GSW had the least contact and greatest stippling confirming the gun dropped and backed away.”
I stood quietly in the shadows watching the heads bob up and down. “Cause of death GSW to the heart. Do we have ballistics, gentlemen?” the M.E. asked.
A voice came from over his shoulder. “Yes, sir. The spectrometer confirms the deceased was holding the gun at time of discharge. We were able to recreate.”
The hand-washing deposits were identical?” asked the M.E.
“Yes, doctor. Identical. Variance within expected range of deviation.” I knew that meant they shot the gun five times, collected the residue from their hand and ran it through the spectrometer; it was a match (amounts and assortment of residues) found on the shooting hand of Mr. X. And yes…he was right handed (we checked).
It wasn’t until a week later that I had the complete picture. The medical examiner ruled Mr. X manner of death to be a suicide. In the report, solid physical evidence removed any and all doubts. We were able to prove Mr. X was holding the gun at time of discharge. We were able to observe four of the five bullets traveled into the body in ways that immediate death was not medically possible. We were able to observe one bullet (probably the last fired) entered the heart and led to immediate death. Further investigation showed Mr. X purchased the bullets the day of the suicide. And in the small print of his recently acquired life insurance policy, death due to homicide or suicide not covered.
The Mr. X case had a big impression on me…possibly because he was my first and I started so wrong. It proved to be one of my most useful and lasting experiences in forensic investigation. I learned early how important it was to leave emotions and a “rush to judgment” thought process at home. I learned the obvious is not always true. I learned the importance of finding, gathering and processing physical evidence. If we had failed to bag the hands of the deceased, the tell-tale residues left from the shooting could have been altered and questions/doubts would only linger. And I learned experience does matter. The vet was a professional. As I continued to work with him and then along side of him as an equal, I realized he was a pro dedicated to representing the deceased. That’s the topic of another post…very important.
As a forensic investigator, field agent for the medical examiner’s office, I worked over 3,000 unexplained deaths in Texas. Mr. X went with me to each one…along with others I will tell you about soon.
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