Five Fun Forensic Facts 4 Fiction!

Forensic pathologist/author Dr. Judy Melinek and husband/co-author T.J. Mitchell team up to compile a list of common forensic errors crime writers make. BONUS: Sign-in and leave a comment on this post to enter for a chance to win Judy and T.J.'s new medical thriller, First Cut.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

More: Doreen Sheridan’s Review of First Cut

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.

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of First Cut by Judy Melinek & T.J. Mitchell!

To enter, make sure you’re a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

First Cut Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at beginning at 9:00 a.m. Eastern Time (ET) January 7, 2020. Sweepstakes ends at 9:00 a.m. ET January 21, 2020. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 120 Broadway, New York, NY 10010.

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  1. John Smith

    Ah, but I’ve watched “Bones”: they have magical 3D holograms you can walk around and all kinds of things! Are you telling me a show like that isn’t a realistic study of forensic science???

  2. Leslie Anderson

    I’m so glad people like Dr. Melinek are educating the public about what forensic pathology and death investigation are really about since there is so much misinformation out there. I can’t wait to read First Cut!

  3. martin bodnar

    thanks for the chance to win!

  4. Karen Mikusak

    Sounds great! Would love to win.

  5. Padmini Rao

    Sounds like a fascinating read.

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    Sounds really interesting!

  7. Jamie Rasmussen

    I really want to read First Cut.

  8. Dorothy Minor

    Sounds like a terrific book to read and possibly choose for one of my book clubs!

  9. Johannah Brookwell

    I often say… that could not have happened that way and then just move on to hopefully enjoy the story!

  10. Jill Carpenter

    With a firefighter as a partner I totally understand the frustration of how badly a TV show can screw things up!

  11. Theresa

    I love finding out what things are really like and how things actually happen vs what hollywood likes to tell us!!

    thanks for the chance!!!

  12. paul klumbach

    i need the second cut

  13. Randal S Brandt

    Looks like a great entry into the vast canon of San Francisco mysteries.

  14. carloshmarlo

    #5 is one of my pet peeves in TV and Movies too. Not only shootings but sometimes stabbings too. The victim quickly and quietly dies right away. I tend to call BS a lot. Thanks for the chance to win your new book! crs(at)codedivasites(dot)com

  15. Carla

    Loved Working Stiff! Thank you for the chance!

  16. mkear

    Love medical thrillers.

  17. paul klumbach

    when is the 2nd cut coming ?

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    interesting info

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    I can;’t wait to read this book.

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    This sounds like my kind of book. I hope I’m the lucky winner!

  21. Ruth

    Thanks for this intriguing feature and giveaway.

  22. Annne

    Fabulous duo and very creative.

  23. kybooks

    I would be interested in getting the facts straight. Sounds good to me.

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    Oh, pick me, pick me. Would love to win this book!

  25. Carol Kubala

    Points made well taken. Whether I win or not I’ll be reading First Cut and probably will pick Working Stiff also.
    Thanks for the opportunity and chance to win this title.

  26. pat murphy

    Sounds interesting .

    • Mary Woods

      I really enjoyed reading the “Five Fun Forensic Facts.” I will definitely keep them in mind when I read any murder mystery from now on. Thanks for taking the time to educate your readers!

  27. Riann Fletcher

    Sounds like an excellent read! I would love to win!

  28. Michael Carter

    Yes, please enter me in this sweepstakes.

  29. Rachael Pendleton

    This sounds awesome!

  30. Ellis313

    I spent thirty years as a medicolegal death investigator in New Mexico, in addition to Emergency Nursing, healthcare management and administration, counseling, institutional internal investigations, and more. I am now completely retired; but I have not lost my passion for death investigation, etc.

  31. Nancy

    Sounds fascinating. Thanks for the chance.

  32. amy mara

    sounds good

  33. Denice Langley

    Now I’m going to be looking for errors while reading!

  34. sue

    This sounds like a great read!

  35. Alicia Kozak

    Sounds great. I read and enjoyed Working Stiff. Thanks for bringing this new book to my attention.

  36. Deb Philippon

    I find this very interesting. I know some things seem a bit off on TV shows, but it’s not always easy to pinpoint exactly what it is.

  37. Melissa Lawrence

    Would love to win this!

  38. Michelle

    Sounds good! I’d love to win a copy!

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    Can’t wait to read this one, great to know about this author.

  40. Lynn Dansie

    Having a bit of personal experience in this world, I appreciate a more true to life description in books, though I do take into account writer freedoms and maybe they like to have it a certain way in their fictional worlds. That’s ok too. Thanks for a chance!!

  41. Rhonda Stefani

    Ahh how the TV shows love to change everything to fit so perfectly, yet it’s so wrong. Always enjoyed Patricia Cornwell’s novels as I knew I was reading accurate information. Would love to read your new book, right up my alley!

  42. Sally Schmidt

    Fascinating, thanks for the chance to win.

  43. Stephanie L Nelson

    This sounds great!

  44. Susan Morris

    First Cut sounds like a great read! So interesting to learn about the inaccuracy of some of my favorite shows .

  45. SusieStangland

    Love this list!! And how about evidence at the crime scene?

  46. C

    Very interesting! I love knowing the actual facts.

  47. Bobbi Smith

    Omg this makes me want to re watch everything I’ve ever seen on TV! Very interesting. Thank you for the list of facts of inaccuracies, I devoured them. Can’t wait to read the book!!

  48. Barbara Eveland

    You had me at “Pathologist” – I have a Clinical Lab background and I know I will love this book.

  49. John Davis

    I truly appreciate writers like this. They tell the truth, because they’ve done it, seen it, and experienced it. I love the ‘debunking’ nature of comments by professionals.

  50. Barbara Fish

    I would love to learn more about forensic science. Please send me this book!

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    Would love to read this!

  52. Linda Marean

    Looking forward to this book

  53. Sue Dittmar

    My sister works in your world and the amount of head shaking at the TV sometimes borders on the comical. I will never forget her yelling at a CSI show about DNA. I appreciate your hard work and your books.

  54. JenF

    Thanks for the chance! Looks like an interesting read!

    • Vicki Hitzfeld


  55. Lori P

    I find this especially fascinating, but at the same time I’m grateful in real life to be far removed from it.

  56. copperfield14

    I love reading Crime novels and watching tv shows like the Fall and Prime Suspect. I’d love to win.

  57. Tawney Mazek

    I love the thought of reading fiction that is based on years of real life experience. It does tend to show.

  58. Shana Skaletsky

    Yes! Thank you for this post! I would love to win a copy of this book!

  59. Book12

    As a budding new novelist, all the research I can lay my hands on to present accurate descriptions are worth a fortune, to me. Being new to the novel field $$’s are tight for purchasing such research material. To win, however, provides me an additional boost to use the research honestly and faithfully. So, yes, I would love to be picked to receive this exciting book.

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    There’s always room for one more book, even if I have to buy a new bookcase.

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    Would love to win

  62. Diana Hardt

    It sounds like a really interesting book.


    I would be grateful to win and share.

  64. Susan Pertierra

    This is useful information since as a lay person, it’s hard to know how it is in the real world.


    Poisons interest me because a lot TV shows seem to go to such extremes about which one they use, its effects, where to get it, etc. Thanks for the chance to win. Love mysteries! 💜💜💜

  66. Kathy Church

    Loved the article! The book sounds great. I love getting the facts straight too.

  67. Tiffany

    This looks good

  68. Laurie Sandretto

    Thank you for the article.

  69. Pam Walrath

    Loved the article…can’t wait to read the book!

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  71. Emma Cazabonne

    Fascinating behind the scene details. Thanks. I so want to read this!

  72. Donna Coliz

    Loved your fun forensic facts. Your book sounds like a lot of fun.

  73. Rhonda Struthers

    I love the mystery genre. I especially love novels where I can learn. Whether it be crime techniques, an activity or a period: I like to expand my knowledge.

  74. Carolyn

    Finally an opportunity to get the facts from a professional! This sounds like a great book!!!

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