Monday, July 27, 2009
Imagine the hushed, sterile atmosphere of an autopsy room. A body arrives and a team of forensic experts quietly gets to work to try to determine cause of death. Scientific evidence is gathered to determine whether a crime was committed to cause the death, whether it occurred from natural, unavoidable causes or if it was death by suicide.
In many cases, such as that of retired NFL quarterback Steve McNair, the cause of death is pretty obvious. McNair, was found sprawled on his condo’s couch, shot twice in the head and twice in the chest. Nearby was the dead body of his 20 year old mistress, a gun underneath her. It was quickly ruled a murder/suicide.
But other deaths are not so clear cut. Take the case of 50-year-old infomercial scream-seller Billy Mays. After he was found dead in his bed by his wife, we heard that he’d violently bumped his head in an airplane just hours earlier. It was thought the hit on the head had something to do with his sudden death. But forensic science proved it wasn’t so. Once the medical professionals opened Mays’ chest they immediately discovered a diseased heart was to blame, an affliction Mays apparently was unaware he had.
And then there are the full blown forensic death investigations like the one surrounding entertainer Michael Jackson, suspected of dying at home from an overdose of a hospital strength anesthesia called Diprivan and, perhaps, a cocktail of other drugs. Cases like Jackson’s demand a full toxicology and histology workup. In layman’s terms: a full examination of blood, tissue, hair and organ samples to determine if someone should be charged with a crime.
All this scientific sleuthing takes time to accomplish and in the meantime families of the dead anxiously await the final verdict.
Autopsy blood workups are routine. The sample is usually taken from deep inside the body’s heart chamber and tests determine what compounds are present in the bloodstream. Some drugs like cocaine break down in the body quickly and are hard to detect. But most drugs stop metabolizing when the person dies and so the traces found in the bloodstream are indicative of what was present at the time of death. The forensic investigators also examine urine, bile and tissue samples from the liver, heart, spleen and kidneys. The information gathered fits together like pieces in a cause-of-death puzzle.
Hair is especially revealing, holding on to what the body has ingested like rings on a tree. Since scalp hair usually grows about half an inch a month the longer the body’s hair the more information can be found. A six inch hair will reveal a full year’s worth of clues. Traces of each drug used will be stored in the hair shaft and the coroner’s office will be able to list every one, be they prescription or illegal drugs, and when they were used. In the case of a bald person shorter hair from armpits or the groin area can be used, they’ll just yield less historical information.
But there is nothing as telling as what the scientists can deduce from studying the brain. Unlike other organs from which samples can be taken immediately, the brain requires special handling. The entire brain mass must be submerged and hardened in formaldehyde for about three weeks before samples can be taken. Once gathered a neuron-forensic pathologist usually needs four to six weeks to unravel all the telltale evidence about what happened to the body during life.
If the decedent was beaten as a child contusions on the brain will be seen as dead tissue, called necrosis spots. If in life the person suffered a drug overdose (or multiple drug overdoses) the scientist will be able to see evidence of that and can determine when the overdose(s) occurred. If the decedent suffered strokes there will be visible scar tissue.
When a family receives a negative cause of death determination from the coroner they are often in denial. They don’t want to believe their family member could have committed suicide or died of a self-inflicted drug overdose.
Media leaks about the state of Jackson’s body at death have been excruciating. The almost six foot tall performer was reported to have weighed just 112 pounds. The skin on his arms, neck and legs were said to have been pockmarked with both old and new needle punctures. All indications are he died from a fatal overdose of several different drugs.
If that is the final judgment on what killed Michael Jackson something tells me the Jackson family will never accept it. It will be more comforting to believe some outside force killed their loved one. It’s much harder to accept the fact that someone you cherished slowly and deliberately shortened his own life.Tweet