Five Fun Forensic Facts 4 Fiction!
By Judy Melinek, M.D & T.J. MitchellJanuary 7, 2020
Forensics shows are a ball, right? Not if you’re us. If you’re forensic pathologist Dr. Judy Melinek, you throw things at the screen while screaming about the parade of absurdities and inaccuracies marching across it. If you’re her husband, writer T.J. Mitchell, you have to dodge the things being thrown.
We have co-authored a nonfiction forensics book, Working Stiff: Two Years, 262 Bodies, and the Making of a Medical Examiner, and have blogged on this subject when it comes to television (“7 CSI fails“) and the media (“A Forensic Primer for Journalists“). Our own debut detective novel, First Cut, is coming in January. In writing it, we tried to remain as true to Dr. Melinek’s morgue life as we could be, while working within the requirements of the genre. There are a lot of pitfalls along that path! Here is our shortlist—the 5 most common forensics errors that crime writers make.
- A coroner is not a medical examiner, and a medical examiner is not a cop. In writing about crime, you need to understand your fictional jurisdiction. If it’s a medical examiner district, then the system is run entirely by doctors. The autopsy death investigation is performed by a forensic pathologist, usually called an assistant medical examiner, overseen by another forensic pathologist, the chief medical examiner. If it’s a coroner district, then it’s still a forensic pathologist who does the autopsy, but the final investigative authority is not a doctor; a coroner can be an elected official, a sheriff, or some other public officer. All of these different bureaus might also include a cast of support professionals: medico-legal death investigators, autopsy technologists, forensic anthropologists and dentists and neuropathologists…. You get the picture. If you want to make your fiction realistic, research the structure of the death investigation system in the state you are writing about, and strive to reflect the integrity of these different layers of divisional expertise.
- Cause and manner of death are not the same thing. You will never hear a medical examiner or coroner say, “the cause of death was blood loss,” or “the cause of death was self-inflicted.” The cause of death is the disease or injury that starts the lethal sequence of events. If someone is shot and one of your characters asks your forensic pathologist for the cause of death, the correct answer is something like “gunshot wound to the head.” If your dead guy has been stabbed, it’s “stab wound of the chest.” Blood loss is the mechanism by which your dead guy died, but the cause of that death is the injury that brought about the blood loss. Its bedfellow, manner of death, is a legal and scientific classification scheme we use to categorize causes. In most jurisdictions, the available manners of death are natural, accident, homicide, suicide, and undetermined. Natural deaths are due to disease or aging. Accidental deaths are due to unforeseeable acts, like a motor vehicle collision, or to hostile environments, like a drowning. A homicide is a death due to a volitional act of another person. Suicide is due to an intentionally self-inflicted lethal act. Undetermined means there’s not enough information to come down hard on one—an area of ambiguity that can, of course, be a boon to a crime writer, but only if (again) you do your homework and understand how death certificates get finalized.
- Time of death estimation based on biology is guesswork. It is not accurate down to the minute or even the hour. The deputy coroner or medical examiner cannot come out to the crime scene and declare that, based on the body temperature or rigidity, the time of death was between 8 and 8:30 last night. While the body does cool at approximately 1.5 to 2 degrees Fahrenheit per hour, the accuracy of these determinations is highly dependent on the temperature of the death scene and the starting temperature of the body. If the victim died with a fever or had been taking drugs like ecstasy or methamphetamines that screwed with their metabolism, their temperature might have started higher than normal, affecting the time of death estimation. “The time of death was in the ballpark of 8 to 10 PM, plus or minus two or three hours,” is about the best you can pull off if you want to reflect reality.
- Crime writers love poisonings. Real murderers do not. In the course of Dr. Melinek’s 20-year career, she’s found that almost all poisonings are accidental overdoses of drugs, whether prescribed or illicit. She can count on one hand the number of homicidal poisonings she’s investigated. Most drugs do not have an immediate and instantaneous effect when ingested. Only rare weapons-grade toxins can be formulated to be absorbed through the skin, so sprinkling them on a surface won’t work. If you must poison a character, do your research. Toxicology textbooks are out there in libraries. Pay attention to the timing of onset and symptoms, and get the scenario right.
- Gunshot wounds won’t drop your victim to the ground, unless there is direct injury to the brain or spinal cord. Bullets don’t spin people around or propel them across a room. In many cases people don’t even know they’ve been shot, even if the wound proves fatal. When you’re writing about gunshot wounds, consult an actual doctor who treats injuries, like a surgeon or an emergency room physician—or, of course, your friendly neighborhood forensic pathologist. Just don’t ask her to tune in to your favorite forensics show, unless you want an earful after.
About First Cut by Judy Melinek & T.J. Mitchell:
For San Francisco’s newest medical examiner, Dr. Jessie Teska, it was supposed to be a fresh start. A new job in a new city. A way to escape her own dark past.
Instead she faces a chilling discovery when an opioid-overdose case contains hints of something more sinister. Jessie’s superiors urge her to close the case, but as more bodies land on her autopsy table, she uncovers a constellation of deaths that point to an elaborate plot involving drug dealers and Bitcoin brokers.
Drawing on her real-life experiences as a forensics expert, Judy Melinek teams up with husband T.J. Mitchell to deliver the most exhilarating mystery of the year. Autopsy means “see for yourself,” and Jessie Teska won’t stop until she has seen it all—even if it means that the next corpse on the table could be her own.
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