By Jennifer Bucholtz, criminal justice and forensic science faculty member at American Military University
Working as a medico-legal death investigator for a medical examiner or coroner is not for the faint of heart. Not only is it gruesome, but it is physically, mentally, and emotionally challenging. However, it is also a career that is rewarding, fascinating, and continuously educational.
In 1999, I had the unique opportunity to complete a one-year internship with the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) in New York City. At the time, I was working on my master’s degree at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. The head supervisor for the investigative division appeared amused that a college student had any interest in his department. He had never hired an intern before and, apparently, no one had ever inquired about such opportunities.
Despite the lack of precedence for my request, he agreed to bring me on and allow me to pilot the first digital photography program for the OCME. Digital photography was just being introduced to mainstream America at the time and the OCME was contemplating upgrading to it from their current practice of using Polaroid film.
I expected to simply be “the girl with the camera” at death scenes. However, what I was presented with was a much more in-depth, hands-on experience in the field of medico-legal investigations. The investigators I worked with accepted me into their group—not throwing up at the sight of my first dead body (or any thereafter) probably helped.
First-Hand Learning Opportunity
These investigators provided me with more knowledge of the investigation cycle and human body than any classroom education could offer. The experience also provided me with some critical understanding about how to properly photograph death scenes including lighting, angles, and the composition of a picture.
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My first death scene involved an elderly woman whose body had not been discovered for many days. It was an eye-opening introduction to the field of death investigation. She was green in color over most of her body and emitted a smell one can never remove from memory. The decomposition process had taken place in the several prior days. The bacteria growth within the body had spread into much of the soft tissue, resulting in the skin discoloration and the horrid smell. The responding officers had a habit of placing coffee grounds into a pot on the stove, and burning them, ostensibly to cover up the smell of death. I found the combination of the two to be much worse than the latter by itself.
Manners of Death
Working in New York afforded me a glimpse of every manner of death (different from the cause of death), which is the official wording used by medical examiners to describe the general circumstances that led to a person’s death. The five manners are:
I attended multiple homicide scenes, although, surprisingly, very few of these homicides were carried out with a firearm. Two murder victims I distinctly remember were both killed by strangulation; one at the hands of another and the second strangled by the extendable hose attached to a shower head. The latter murder appeared to be the result of an argument, which took place in a high-rise apartment and the shower hose was a weapon of opportunity.
Suicides were, unfortunately, rather common. A woman diagnosed with terminal cancer booked a room on the 12th floor of a hotel in mid-town Manhattan. Her body was discovered several hours later, in the alleyway adjacent to the building, by a hotel worker taking out the trash. The note she left in the room, detailing her plan and motive, was heart-wrenching.
Accidents were, unfortunately, quite common in New York City. While attending an autopsy one morning, the paramedics brought in a man who had fallen on the subway tracks and been run over by a train. His body had been completely severed in two, at the waist. The manner of death was obvious, as there had been witnesses at the scene, but the missing mid-section made for a challenging autopsy.
Establishing Time of Death
Estimating time of death is not an exact science and this estimate is usually expressed in a several hour increment. For example, a pathologist may say: “The estimated time of death was between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m.”
The changes that occur within a human body in the hours and days after death provide clues to this estimate. I learned that body temperature is often a key factor in determining the time of death. Generally, a decedent’s body temperature will begin drop two hours after death at a rate of 1 to 1.5 degrees per hour.
In New York, in the summer, however, this factor is often unreliable and not applicable. Ambient temperatures can reach 110 degrees and many apartments do not have air conditioning. So, it was not unusual to find a body with a temperature over 100 degrees, hours after death, indicating the body temperature actually rose after the person passed away.
Discoloration and integrity of the skin surface, as well as, other decompositional changes can also aid in estimating the time of death. Again, hot temperatures accelerate these processes and can make it quite challenging to narrow down the time of death to within a few hours. Often, the pathologists could only estimate within days.
Challenge of Establishing Manner of Death
One of the most perplexing death scenes I attended was that of a 19-year-old male college student who had plunged to his death from the 34th floor of an apartment building. None of the investigators I worked with had ever been to a scene where someone jumped/fell from that height. The boy’s skin was essentially intact on the sidewalk below, but his inner organs and brains were strewn about, some dozens of yards away. Witnesses who had attended a party in his apartment that night stated they had seen him smoke pot. At some point he went out on the balcony, but no one saw (or admitted to have seen) him jump, or possibly slip, over the railing.
The case was especially difficult because there was no apparent motive for suicide. But, an accident seemed unlikely as well. Either way, the boy would have had to climb up onto the balcony railing which would have been tricky. We considered homicide, thinking maybe someone at the party pushed him, although that would have been difficult as well, based on the height of the railing. In addition, it seemed logical the boy would have yelled for help and someone inside would have heard.
Unfortunately, I never learned the outcome of this case. The manner of death was initially written as undetermined.
Career Considerations: The Emotional Toll
This lack of closure for death investigators is not uncommon and is an emotional strain that many do not consider when thinking about a career as a medical examiner. The role of the examiner is to process the body, not the entire death scene. Clues at the scene may aid in determining the manner of death, but, ultimately, law enforcement officials are responsible for establishing whether a crime was committed.
If police find clues and/or witnesses that lead them to conclusively establish a death was a result of a homicide, the pathologists who fill out the death certificate can change the manner of death.
Despite some of the drawbacks of dealing with death on a daily basis, there are rewarding attributes in working for a medical examiner. Being able to comfort family members, help law enforcement bring closure to some cases, and solve puzzles of the human body, make the job worthwhile.
Those with an inquisitive brain and solid stomach make good candidates for a death investigator. Every day is different and unique and each case is a challenge requiring in-depth analysis.
Most coroners and medical examiners now offer official internship programs. The requirements vary from one jurisdiction to the next, some being more stringent than others. I highly encourage students with an interest in forensics and the human body to inquire about internship opportunities in their local area.
About The Author: Jennifer Bucholtz is a former U.S. Army Counterintelligence Agent and decorated veteran of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. She holds a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice, Master of Arts in criminal justice and Master of Science in forensic sciences. Jennifer has an extensive background in U.S. military and Department of Defense Counterintelligence operations. While on active duty, she served as the Special Agent in Charge for her unit in South Korea and Assistant Special Agent in Charge at stateside duty stations. Jennifer has also worked for the Arizona Department of Corrections and Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in New York City. Jennifer is currently an adjunct faculty member at American Military University and teaches courses in criminal justice and forensic sciences, within the School of Public Service and Health. You can contact her at Jennifer.Bucholtz@mycampus.apus.edu.