Night of the Living Dead in Las Vegas (Part 1)
Forensic pathologists have the coolest patients.
That’s just one of several jokes I heard at the annual conference of forensic pathologists’ held here in Las Vegas a few nights ago.
Forensic pathologists study dead people. Their objective is to determine cause of death. Popular culture knows this squeamish science mostly through popular television shows like “CSI.” However, forensic pathology involves far more than prodding corpses, probing for gunshot wounds, and sawing off skulls to examine brain tissue. As I would gradually come to discover, forensics have become the new frontier of law and order, bolstering the justice portion of the “criminal justice” system, while also sometimes igniting controversy and framing much of what we know of current events. Impartial to politics of sentiment, it’s findings can trigger murder charges, free the innocent, and even assuage the boiling tinder of race riots. At it’s core, forensics can also be the emotional salve of truth for survivors of the deceased, who may wonder what really happened to their friends and loved ones. Forensics is the dispensation of peace.
At the behest of two dear friends, Dr. Michael Baden and Linda Kenney Baden, I was invited to one of the most intriguing conference sessions of the multi-day conference. It’s closed off to the public. The reason for exclusion is pretty simple: Photos of dead bodies are beamed on giant movie screens and then discussed in great detail as to what happened. I was warned in advance not to eat a heavy meal.
First things first. Aside from my occasional jokes at everyone else’s expense and the wicked sense of humor I observed among these fascinating professionals during my attendance, the very first commandment of this science is treating the body with respect. It takes someone who’s a little different to do this line of work, and I was consistently moved by the great care and even occasional acts of compassion these people showed for the dead, their survivors, and the science of forensic pathology.
The evening was emceed by the world famous Dr. Baden. Aside from his work on the Kennedy Assassination, he may best known to the public for his amazing HBO series, “Autopsy,” in which he examined many of the most shocking crimes of the 20th century purely from a forensics standpoint. If you haven’t seen this already, do yourself a favor and watch it on Netflix sometime. Marvelous mix of history, science, mystery. Indeed, it gives “mystery science theater” and entirely new meaning.
The session included about a dozen of the top forensics experts in the world who each stood upon a stage in front of 250 or so of their peers (plus one queasy novice outsider sitting on the front row — so as to see the gore in all its glory). Each expert took terms presenting their most unusual cases from all over the U.S.. The objective was purely educational. However, for those who relish a good mystery, I must admit that the experience was just equally as entertaining. Most of these deaths were of people we’ve never heard of, so that helped to get past some uneasiness. There was at least one notable exception. I was surprised to hear a detailed analysis of the controversial Trevor Martin-George Zimmerman case, from the forensic pathologist who actually examined the body. Afterward, I came away with a totally different view of that case, upon seeing and hearing the evidence first-hand.
Here were some of the most interesting takeaways from the evening [Forgive my not remembering names and providing greater detail. I didn’t take any notes]:
- The first examiner explored the case of an exhumed body, which had been buried for more than half a century. The family and survivors of this former prison inmate were determined to find out if the body was actually someone else who might have escaped from Alcatraz. They had been told the deceased convict in the grave had been electrocuted by accident. The tomb was dug up and opened. It was grizzly to view photos of what’s inside a musty casket, revealing in full color what happens to a body after so many years. The ghoulish creature from “Tales from the Crypt” immediately comes to mind (the creators of that horror show clearly did their research). It was exactly what one might expect. However, the corpse was dressed in a polyester suit, dress shirt, and tie. Remarkably, I learned that while cotton and wool deteriorates almost as fast as the human body, these synthetic materials last forever. His suit probably could have been dusted off, dry cleaned, and worn to the prom to this day. Lesson: If you want to look your very best half a century after you die — wear polyester.
- The next case was more of a generalized presentation on illegal drugs, and specifically the effects of synthetic cannabis, something I’d never heard of. Apparently, there’s some form of this mind-altering drug manufactured in China and some parts of Eastern Europe which are smuggled over here and are now producing deaths in the United States. While organically-grown marijuana has never proven to cause any deaths, this synthetic variant of cannabis (sometimes called “Syn-Can”) has proven deadly, generally because of extreme behavior modification. In other words, like when getting drunk, users tend to take more risks and then do stupid things, sometimes resulting in death. It was an interesting presentation and will only fuel more intense debate on the drug issue.
- After that, we saw the case of a woman who was found dead inside a freezer. It took days to thaw out her frozen body. Part of the presentation discussed the technique to thaw out a corpse without damaging delicate skin and tissue. Let’s just say I didn’t realize that a hair dryer could be so multi-functional. The fascinating thing about this case was, why would a woman be trapped inside a freezer? Was she murdered? Did she go inside, get stuck behind the door, and suffocate by accident? Was this a suicide? Forensics pathologists examined all the evidence and came to the surprising conclusion that this was indeed a case of suicide. What a strange way to die. Chilling, in fact.
- Then, came another questionable suicide. A man of about 60 had been found dead laying in a field with two gunshot wounds to the head. Police thought this was clearly a murder, and perhaps even a mob hit. However, after further examination, the case was ruled a suicide. Question: How could a troubled person holding a handgun gun shoot himself twice in the head? How is that even possible? Well, the examiner cut open the brain, and then showed the position of the first bullet. It had clearly not been fatal. Bleeding and stunned from the effects of the first shot, the delirious man was somehow able to muster up enough strength to blast another shot into his own skull. The brain tissue photos of that case were particularly gruesome and satisfied any cravings whatsoever for pasta dishes over the next week.
- One of the highlights was a discussion of the Martin-Zimmerman case in Florida, from a few years ago. We all remember how politicized that case became. It was sad to see this incident worsen race relations in America. However, forensics experts weren’t concerned with the politics. This was about science. Was Martin murdered or was this a case of Zimmerman’s self-defense? I wish the public could see the evidence just as I did. The short version of what happened was this — Martin was on top of Zimmerman throwing punches and had even inflicted a broken nose during the altercation. Zimmerman felt as though his life was threatened, pulled out a handgun, and fired into the chest of Martin. The shot killed him. The forensics expert proved beyond any doubt that Martin was indeed on top of Zimmerman when the gunshot was fired (Martin was not chased and hunted down as some critics later alleged, creating the false counter-narrative). Clothing and blood fragments and the way they soiled skin and cloth confirmed Zimmerman’s account of what happened. Zimmerman has since proven to be a pretty despicable character and he’s a tough case to defend in the court of public opinion. However, the forensics evidence in this cased showed his account of the struggle and shooting was accurate.
- Another interesting part of the presentation was the examination of bullet holes on the human body. We heard from the foremost authority on bullet holes, their shape and impact, and what this means to science and criminal justice. This session was fittingly overseen by the head of the Texas Forensic Board, who has seen more than his share of gunshot wounds, becoming “the man” in this field. We’re all used to seeing people shot in the movies and there’s an illusion that when that happens the flesh is torn wide open, marred by massive amount of blood. However in real life, after these fatal wounds on the deceased are cleaned up and we see just the holes in the body, it almost looks benign. We wonder how the hole could be fatal. These holes are often no larger than the size of the eraser on a pencil, yet they prove deadly. Of course, higher caliber bullets can tear open more flesh and cause considerably worse damage. Another part of this presentation included that happens as gunpowder is discharged from the barrel. I’d like to have seen much more on this, since sadly, guns are such a part of our culture.
If you’re still with me, your’re either a forensic pathologist, someone who’s sick and morbid, or perhaps you’re just curious like I was. Continuing with much more in tomorrow’s Part 2….