Forensic riddles: Scientists speak on behalf of the dead

Don Jacobs, Matt Lakin feature story in

The skull arrived hairless, skinless and nameless, found under a brush pile on an East Knox County farm the day after Thanksgiving 2008.

Murray Marks put a name and a face on it – Byron Barker, a 47-year-old West Knoxville hairstylist who’d disappeared more than three years earlier. Police believe he’d been killed by an ex-lover.

Bone lasts forever,” said Marks, a forensic anthropologist. “Every skeleton’s different, and every situation that gets it to you is different. But bone keeps a memory of what happens to it. The bones will tell you everything.”For Marks and others at the Knox County Medical Examiner’s Office, the end of life is where their job starts. The staff, based in the University of Tennessee Regional Forensic Center, work with law enforcement to investigate who dies, how and why.

“Our clients are not just the police,” said Dr. Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan, chief medical examiner. “They’re also the families. It’s the families left behind who need to understand what happened and want an explanation. It’s also about public health. It’s about catching trends, not just solving crime.

“I’m the spokesperson for the dead because they cannot speak for themselves.”
Even producers from shows such as “CSI” call now and then posing hypothetical questions about a fictitious murder.

The center serves mainly Knox and Anderson counties, along with about a dozen surrounding counties on a contract basis and outlying counties by request. Its two examiners performed nearly 800 autopsies last year in deaths that ranged from murder to suicide to natural causes.

A forensic foundation
A homicide finding by the medical examiner becomes the foundation for any murder case. But the autopsy is just half of the story.

“It’s a lot like being a pediatrician or a veterinarian, because the patient can’t tell you what’s wrong,” said Dr. Steve Cogswell, deputy medical examiner. “It’s a historical and physical investigation – performing the autopsy, examining the medical history. You can’t have one without the other.”

The center’s two investigators, headed by former Knoxville police detective Larry Vineyard, work day and night to personally visit the scenes of mysterious or unattended deaths. Homicides and other violent deaths typically take priority.

“A death in (police) custody is No. 1,” Mileusnic-Polchan said. “We review all child deaths and industrial deaths. We try to go to as many scenes as possible and do our own independent investigation.”

Sometimes homicide is obvious – a shooting in front of witnesses, for example, such as the recent murder-suicide in front of Parkwest Medical Center. But a jury tasked with taking the freedom of an accused person has to hear the details – how many gunshots, what caliber bullet, which organs suffered damage and how quickly the victim died.

A baby’s death might look sinister until investigation reveals an undiagnosed medical problem. Bones in the woods might be an animal’s – or a murder victim’s.

Sometimes the death is not as simple as it looks. When Sevier County deputies and the Tennessee Highway Patrol found Shannon Dawn Hercutt’s body in August in her smashed sport utility vehicle at the bottom of a 125-foot cliff, the case looked clear-cut.

Then an autopsy showed she’d been killed elsewhere – apparently beaten with a baseball bat in her garage, according to relatives. The case remains unsolved.

“Not every hanging is simple,” Mileusnic-Polchan said. “Not every drug overdose is simple. Even if it’s an overdose, we have to know what kind of drug was used to see how it fits the greater public health pattern.”

Because of the lack of training among physicians about death, Mileusnic-Polchan said she wonders how many murders even today go undetected.

“There is a vulnerable population where someone is old and the death looks natural, but it could be something else,” she said.

From funeral home to forensic center
Authorities say that’s a lesson that’s finally started to take hold around the region. Veteran police and prosecutors remember when death cases could be closed on appearances or a family member’s word.

“Law enforcement understands now to treat every apparent suicide as a possible homicide,” said William Paul Phillips, 8th Judicial District attorney general. “In the past, violent deaths were sometimes classified as suicides too quickly. But over the past 35 years, we have gradually gotten sheriffs and police chiefs to accept the importance of having forensic examinations in death cases.”

The tide began to turn in the 1970s with the advent of board-certified pathologists such as Dr. Cleland Blake of Morristown, who built a personal forensic workshop and began visiting scenes with police instead of waiting for bodies to arrive. That progress helped lead to the creation of UT’s Forensic Center, which opened in 1997.

“Autopsies then were done by pathologists in Knoxville or Oak Ridge who were competent doctors, but forensic pathology was not their specialty,” Phillips said. “It was kind of a favor they did for the community. There was not even a single board-certified pathologist in East Tennessee. Dr. Blake was the earliest.”

When Bill Bass developed the UT Anthropological Research Facility – also called the “Body Farm” – in 1981, the science of death grew by leaps and bounds.

“Basically, everything we know about rotting bodies and insects came from Bill’s Body Farm,” Marks said.

Bass’ studies helped determine how long a person had been dead in various environments. Now researchers know a squirrel won’t gnaw on a human bone for 18 months because of leaching body fats, while a rat will waste no time eating the remains.

Since Bass’ innovative work, other body farms have been established across the nation.

With all the steps forward, death investigators still face misunderstandings, even from their brothers and sisters in medicine.

“Most doctors aren’t trained to fill out death certificates,” Cogswell said. “It’s simply not taught in medical school, because modern medicine doesn’t like to acknowledge that people die.”
He credits some of the greatest advances in the field to another profession – the lawyers who grill him on the witness stand.

“Defense attorneys keep us honest,” Cogswell said. “They’re the guys who make me explain why I believe what I believe, and that keeps me from becoming complacent. Twenty years ago, you could proclaim yourself an expert, and juries bought into it. People know more now about what we do. We’re much more demanding. For that, you have to thank the defense attorneys.”

4 responses to this post.

  1. A wonderful article thank you for sharing:) *MY GOD IS AN AWESOME GOD!*



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