I LOVE Tom Adair He is a retired CSI and the author of the new suspense/thriller The Scent of Fear inspired by actual cases from his 15 year career. In other words, he’s the real deal. He’s also an avid blogger and a great author.
I met Tom maybe a year ago when he first set up his blog, forensics4fiction. I’ve followed it ever since (it’s on my blogroll). If you’re a mystery author, Tom’s blog is a pretty incredible resource. It will help you that add that air of authenticity to your book.
Despite being a very busy guy, Tom has been a great help to me, always willing to answer questions. Today, he guest blogs on the proper way to transport a body to the morgue. Remember, writing good mystery fiction is all about getting the small details right! I’m bookmarking this one: bet you will too!
The Proper Wayto Transport a Body
I’ll bet you never thought there was a wrong way to transport a body, huh? Most writers (and some investigators) mistakenly believe that you simply place a victim’s body in a body bag, zip it up, and put them in the back of the coroner’s wagon. While this is generally true there are some simple mistakes that can be disastrous to an investigation. These mistakes can also generate some great plot twists, obstacles, and tension in your novel.
Bodies at crime scenes are closely scrutinized and photographed but the examination is far short of an autopsy. In fact, it is pretty rare to have a forensic pathologist at a crime scene unless the crime is high profile in nature. So it falls to investigators to ensure that the evidence associated with the body remains as close to its original state (as it was found) as possible prior to autopsy.
One of the things pathologists look for on a body is postmortem lividity. Lividity is a darkening of the skin where blood pools and is an important indicator of the time since death. Once the heart stops beating the blood will settle by gravity to the lowest portions of the body. So if the victim is laying on their back then the blood will begin to settle towards the back. If they are seated then the blood will settle in the lower legs, back of the thighs, and buttocks. You get the idea.
Lividity will “fix” or become “permanent” after about 12 hours. Prior to 12 hours it is possible to change the settling of the blood by changing the body position. So what does this mean for investigators?
When possible, bodies should always be transported in the same position that they were found in. So if a victim is found on their back, they should be placed in the body bag and transported on their back. If they are face down, they get transported face down, and so on.
There is another reason for keeping the body position unchanged; protecting evidence. I once saw a case presentation where a victim was found face down with a bloody shoe impression on their back (on clothing). Investigators transported the body on his back and blood escaped from several wounds saturating the clothing and obliterating the shoe impression. The same thing could happen with blood spatter, hairs and fibers, or other fragile evidence.
A lot of coroners use contractors to handle the physical transport of the body back to the morgue. It’s a cost saving measure that also frees up the investigator for the next call. Most of these contractors are responsible and law abiding but once in a while they cross a line. Several news stories highlight how these contractors might photograph the bodies (celebrity victims), steal personal effects, or even commit sex acts.
One way investigators protect the evidence is by using a serialized plastic cable tie to seal the bag.
Evidence tape can also be used. The investigator will seal the bag at the scene prior to transport and if the seal is broken then they know the evidence has been tampered with.
How can this be used in a novel?
One idea is to have a transport contractor contaminate the evidence to derail the investigation. They could either plant evidence (like blood) or remove it. They could be motivated by money, threats, revenge, or they may even be the killer!
Investigators may not even be able to determine what has been altered. Just finding the seal broken can compromise the chain of custody and prevent any of the evidence from the body being presented in court.
Another option is to have your characters simply make a mistake and unwittingly destroy evidence (as in the example of the bloody shoe print above). This can generate some real tension on the page once the error is discovered and the characters try to remedy the problem. Nothing dampens a CSIs spirits faster than discovering that evidence has been lost. Use that tension to your advantage and keep your readers on edge.
Thanks, Tom! (You can follow Tom on Twitter @authortomadair. And he’s on Facebook, too!)