Morgue: New Excerpt

Morgue: A Life in Death by Vincent DiMaio, Ron Franscell
Morgue: A Life in Death by Vincent DiMaio, Ron Franscell
Morgue: A Life in Death by Vincent DiMaio and Ron Franscell delves in the world of forensic science by exploring the many cases of the famed Dr. Vincent DiMaio (Available May 17, 2016).

In this clear-eyed, gritty, and enthralling narrative, Dr. Vincent Di Maio and veteran crime writer Ron Franscell guide us behind the morgue doors to tell a fascinating life story through the cases that have made Di Maio famous-from the exhumation of assassin Lee Harvey Oswald to the complex issues in the shooting of Florida teenager Trayvon Martin.

Beginning with his street-smart Italian origins in Brooklyn, the book spans 40 years of work and more than 9,000 autopsies, and Di Maio's eventual rise into the pantheon of forensic scientists. One of the country's most methodical and intuitive criminal pathologists will dissect himself, maintaining a nearly continuous flow of suspenseful stories, revealing anecdotes, and enough macabre insider details to rivet the most fervent crime fans.


A Death In Black and White

I don’t know what’s in a human heart.

I have seen more than my share of hearts, held them in my hands. Some were young and strong; some were worn-out, shabby, choked. Many had leaked away an entire life through neat little holes caused by bullets or knives. Some had been stopped by poison or fright. A few had exploded into a thousand tiny bits or were shredded in some grotesque trauma. All of them were dead.

But I never truly knew what was inside these hearts, and never will. By the time I see them, whatever dreams, hopes, fears, ghosts or gods, shame, regrets, anger, and love they might have contained are long gone. The life—the soul—has all seeped out.

What’s left is just evidence. That’s where I usually come in.


Tracy Martin dialed his teenage son’s cell number and it went straight to voice mail.

It was late, well past ten, on a dark, wet Sunday night. Tracy and his girlfriend Brandy Green had been out most of the weekend, leaving seventeen-year-old Trayvon and Brandy’s fourteen-year-old son Chad alone at her townhouse in the Retreat at Twin Lakes, a gated neighborhood in the relatively sedate Orlando suburb of Sanford, Florida. Tracy and Brandy had been dating for two years, and it wasn’t unusual for Tracy and Trayvon to drive up from Miami, four hours each way, for an overnight or a weekend.

It wasn’t just the romance. Tracy desperately wanted Trayvon to wise up, to get away from thug life in Miami, and those long trips were his chance to talk some sense into the kid.

Trayvon didn’t seem to be listening. In some ways, he was a typical teenager, obsessed with girls, video games, sports, and the pounding of rap music in his earbuds. He loved Chuck E. Cheese and watching TV sitcoms. Someday, he thought he’d like to fly or fix airplanes. Family was important, too, even though some of their relatives were black sheep. He often hand-fed his quadriplegic uncle, baked cookies with his young cousins, and had begun wearing a button memorializing another cousin who’d died mysteriously after a drug arrest in 2008.

But Trayvon was no Boy Scout. At nearly six feet tall, he could be intimidating, and he knew it. He flirted with thug life, smoking pot and playing a badass on Facebook. In the past year, his Miami high school had suspended him three times, for tardiness, tagging, and having a bag of pot in his backpack. Tracy, a truck driver who’d been divorced from Trayvon’s mother since 1999, began to hector the boy about his friends, his behavior, and his grades.

He dialed Trayvon’s number again, and again it went straight to voice mail. Brandy’s son Chad told them Trayvon had left around six p.m. to walk to a convenience store less than a mile away. They thought they might catch the NBA All-Star game on TV at seven thirty. Before he left, he’d asked Chad if there was anything he wanted. “Skittles,” Chad said as he went back to his video games. Trayvon tugged on his hoodie and left. He never came back.

Maybe the kid had gone to the movies with a cousin nearby, the father thought, or maybe got sidetracked by a girl along the way. He did stuff like that.

Tracy called the cousin, but got no answer, so he shrugged it off and went to bed. Trayvon was still finding his way and got easily distracted. He was always testing his limits, and sometimes he went too far. He’d just turned seventeen, for god’s sake. He’d turn up.

The next morning, Tracy got up early and dialed Trayvon’s number again. The phone was still switched off, still dumping him directly into voice mail. He called the cousin over and over again until he finally answered—but he hadn’t seen Trayvon at all.

Tracy started to worry. Around eight thirty, he called the sheriff’s dispatcher to report his son missing. He described Trayvon: seventeen, wearing a gray hooded sweatshirt, light red tennis shoes, and probably slacks. He told her that he and Trayvon were from Miami but staying at his girlfriend’s house in Sanford. In a few minutes, another dispatcher called him back with more specific questions, and she told him that police officers were on the way to the townhouse. He felt some relief that he’d soon have some help finding Trayvon.

Three police cars pulled up outside. A somber detective introduced himself and asked Tracy for a recent picture of his son. Tracy flipped through the camera roll on his phone and found one.

The detective gritted his teeth. He told Tracy he had a photo to show him and he wanted to know if it was Trayvon. From a manila envelope, he pulled a full-color image of a young black man. He was dead.

It was Trayvon.

At that moment, Tracy’s boy was lying in a tray in the morgue, ashen and cold, shot once in the chest.

That instant blurred for Tracy Martin. And his sudden shock would soon evolve into a long, painful moment of profound anxiety across America.

*   *   *

The rain fell sullen and persistent as Trayvon left the townhouse. It was one of those ambivalent February nights in Florida, not quite cold and not quite warm, hovering in the mid-fifties. He pulled up his hood and walked through the Retreat, past the front gate, to the 7-Eleven convenience store on Rinehart Road, almost a mile away.

Inside the store, Martin grabbed a tall can of AriZona Watermelon Fruit Juice Cocktail from the cooler and a small package of Skittles from some shelves near the cash register. He fumbled in the pockets of his tan slacks and put a couple of bucks and some coins on the counter to pay for the snacks, then left. A store surveillance camera watched him leave at 6:24 p.m.

On the way back to the townhouse, the rain picked up. Trayvon took shelter beneath an awning over the community mailboxes and called Chad at the townhouse to say he was on his way home. He also called his friend DeeDee, a girl he’d met back in Miami, and with whom he talked and texted endlessly. In fact, they’d already spent about six hours on the phone that day. This time they talked for about eighteen minutes, but he got serious toward the end of the call.

Some guy, “a creepy-ass cracka” in a funky silver truck, was watching him, Trayvon told DeeDee. He sounded scared. He thought about running out the back of the little mailbox area and losing the white guy in the maze of townhouses, but DeeDee told him to run back home as fast as he could.

No, he wouldn’t run, he said. The townhouse wasn’t far. He yanked up his hoodie and started walking right past the truck, glancing at the guy as he kept walking.

But while they continued to talk on the phone, Trayvon started to run. DeeDee could hear his heavy breathing and the wind rushing across the tiny microphone of his earbuds.

After less than a minute of running, he told DeeDee he’d lost the guy, and he slowed to a walk again. DeeDee thought she heard fear in his voice, and she was scared for him, too. She told him to keep running.

But the white guy appeared again, persistent. DeeDee begged Trayvon to run, but he was still breathing hard and couldn’t. After a few seconds, he told her the white guy was closer now.

Suddenly Trayvon wasn’t talking to DeeDee anymore. She heard his voice talking to somebody else nearby.

“Why you following me for?”

Another voice, not far. “What are you doing around here?”

“Trayvon! Trayvon!” DeeDee yelled into the phone.

She heard a thump and a rustling of grass. She heard somebody yell, “Get off! Get off!” She called out again and again to her boyfriend, but the phone went dead.

Frantic, she called Trayvon’s phone back, but nobody answered.

*   *   *

A little after seven p.m., George Zimmerman left his townhouse in the Retreat in his silver 2008 Honda Ridgeline pickup for his weekly grocery shopping at Target. Sunday nights weren’t usually crowded, and tonight the rain would keep even more shoppers away. Perfect.

Between some houses, though, he saw a teenager in a dark gray hoodie, just standing in the shadows out of the rain. He didn’t recognize the kid, who was just milling around. Zimmerman had an uncomfortable feeling about him. A month before, George had seen a kid at that same spot trying to break into a house, but he got away.

So his suspicion wasn’t without reason. The Retreat at Twin Lakes had been rattled when the housing bubble burst. Home values plummeted and underwater residents bailed. Investors snapped up a lot of foreclosed townhouses and started renting them out. The neighborhood changed. Strangers came and went. Low-end people from the wrong side of the gates drifted through. Gangsta boys in low-slung, baggy pants and cockeyed ball caps started hanging around. Then the burglaries and home invasions started. Overnight, those gates didn’t seem as secure.

After three break-ins in August 2011, Zimmerman proposed a neighborhood watch. The idea appealed to the anxious members of the homeowners association, so he invited a Sanford police official to explain how it’d work: Unarmed volunteers would keep an eye on the neighborhood and call the cops if they saw anything suspicious.

Vigilance without violence. Sounded easy enough. The board quickly appointed the pudgy, serious, twenty-eight-year-old George Zimmerman, who’d lived in the Retreat for three years, to coordinate the program.

This son of a former Virginia magistrate and his Peruvian wife was perfect for the job nobody else really wanted to do. A part-time college student who dreamed of being a judge someday, and a financial-fraud auditor at a private company in nearby Maitland, he took his unpaid job seriously. His own temper had flared in the past, getting the former altar boy in modest trouble, but his neighbors now knew him as a friendly, helpful, earnest guy.

He considered himself a kind of protector. Even before he became the watch “captain,” he’d helped capture a shoplifter who filched some electronics from a local supermarket, and now duly “deputized,” he was constantly calling the police dispatchers to report stray dogs, speeders, potholes, graffiti, family fights, and suspicious loiterers. He was even known to knock on doors to let residents know their garage doors were open. To some he was a godsend; to others, a badge-heavy doofus.

So on this gray, damp night, this unfamiliar black kid in a hoodie naturally caught his eye. Zimmerman parked his truck and called the cops on his cellphone.

“Sanford Police Department,” the dispatcher answered.

“Hey, we’ve had some break-ins in my neighborhood,” Zimmerman replied, “and there’s a real suspicious guy, uh, [near] Retreat View Circle, um, the best address I can give you is 111 Retreat View Circle. This guy looks like he’s up to no good, or he’s on drugs or something. It’s raining and he’s just walking around, looking about.”

“Okay, and this guy, is he white, black, or Hispanic?”

“He looks black.”

“Did you see what he was wearing?”

“Yeah,” Zimmerman said. “A dark hoodie, like a gray hoodie, and either jeans or sweatpants and white tennis shoes … he was just staring…”

“Okay, he’s just walking around the area,” the dispatcher said. It wasn’t really question.

“Looking at all the houses,” Zimmerman seemed to finish her sentence. “Now he’s just staring at me.”

About then the teenager started walking toward Zimmerman’s truck, and Zimmerman kept up his play-by-play with the dispatcher.

“How old would you say he looks?” she asked.

Zimmerman squinted into the dim, drizzling darkness.

“He’s got a button on his shirt. Late teens.”

“Late teens, okay.”

Zimmerman was getting a little nervous. “Something’s wrong with him. Yup, he’s coming to check me out. He’s got something in his hands. I don’t know what his deal is.”

“Just let me know if he does anything, okay?”

“How long until you get an officer over here?”

“Yeah, we’ve got someone on the way,” she reassured him. “Just let me know if this guy does anything else.”

Adrenaline was flowing in Zimmerman’s veins. “These assholes, they always get away,” he said.

He had started to give directions to his location when the kid broke into a run.

“Shit, he’s running,” the watchman said.

“Which way is he running?”

“Down toward the other entrance to the neighborhood … the back entrance.” Zimmerman cursed under his breath as he shoved his truck into gear and tried to pursue the kid.

“Are you following him?” the dispatcher asked.


“Okay, we don’t need you to do that.”

Zimmerman copied, but his chase was already over. The kid had vanished between two buildings. Zimmerman got out of his truck to look for a street sign so he could tell the dispatcher his location, and he scanned the shadows for the dark-clad figure. But the kid was gone.

Seven thirteen. The watchman’s call to police had lasted exactly four minutes and thirteen seconds.

In the next three minutes, Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman would collide in a life-or-death struggle.

And one would die.

What happened next is murky. Accounts differ.

After he lost sight of the hooded teen, Zimmerman said he was walking back to his truck when the kid seemed to materialize out of the dank air. He was pissed, and angry words were spoken.

“Yo, you got a problem?” the hooded teen yelled.

“No, I don’t have a problem,” Zimmerman answered.

“You got a problem now,” the kid growled as he punched Zimmerman in the face, breaking his nose.

Stunned by the blow, Zimmerman stumbled and fell on his back. Trayvon leaped on top of him. Zimmerman couldn’t push him off, and soon the kid was repeatedly slamming Zimmerman’s head against the concrete sidewalk that ran between the rows of townhouses.

Zimmerman screamed long and loud for help.

Trayvon clamped one hand over Zimmerman’s nose and the other over his mouth, yelling at him to “shut the fuck up.” In the commotion, Zimmerman’s shirt and jacket were yanked up, revealing his Kel-Tec 9mm handgun, holstered on his right hip.

Trayvon saw it.

“You’re going to die tonight, motherfucker,” he said.

Zimmerman screamed again for help.

Nobody helped, but several startled witnesses called 911 to report the ruckus. In the background of their calls, dispatchers could hear desperate human howls.

“Does he look hurt to you?” the dispatcher asked one of the callers.

“I can’t see him,” the woman answered. “I don’t want to go out there. I don’t know what’s going on, so…”

“So you think he’s yelling ‘Help’?”

“Yes,” the frightened woman answered.

“All right,” the dispatcher said calmly. “What is your…”

A single shot rang out.

The screaming stopped at seven sixteen.

A minute later, the first cop rolled up on the scene.

A young black man lay facedown in the wet grass, his arms under him, his hood pulled back. No pulse.

A red-eyed Zimmerman stood nearby, bloodied but responsive. His jeans and jacket were wet and grass-stained in back. He admitted he’d shot the boy. He raised his hands and surrendered his handgun to the officer, who handcuffed him and seated him in a squad car.

Later, he told investigators that in the struggle, the teenager had reached for his exposed handgun, but Zimmerman had been faster. He grabbed his 9mm and pulled the trigger. The kid slumped into the grass, face forward, startled.

“You got me,” he said. His last words.

The stunned Zimmerman told police he’d quickly gotten up and moved the boy’s arms out to his side, to make sure he had no weapons. He couldn’t see any wounds, nor the boy’s face.

Other cops soon arrived, followed by paramedics, who all tried unsuccessfully to revive this nameless kid, although they had no idea at the time who he was. Still no heartbeat. They pronounced him dead at precisely seven thirty.

One officer lifted Trayvon’s hoodie and felt the heft of a large, cold can—the unopened AriZona watermelon juice drink—in its front pouch. He also found a package of Skittles, a lighter, a cellphone, forty bucks and some change, but no wallet or ID.

So the unidentified teen’s body was sealed in a blue body bag and given a number before it was carted off to the morgue. Sadly, he was just a hundred yards from his house.

The paramedics examined Zimmerman and noted abrasions to his forehead, some blood and tenderness at his nose, and two bloody gashes on the back of his head. His nose was swollen and red, probably broken.

Zimmerman’s wounds were cleaned up back at the station, he spoke freely in a voluntary interview, and later he walked detectives through his movements that night.

Days passed. The Sanford police followed up and were genuinely sad for the kid’s family because, despite his teenage missteps, he seemed to be generally pointed in the right direction, but they couldn’t prove Zimmerman committed any crime. In fact, all the evidence suggested his account was truthful.

The ordinary stuff in a dead kid’s pockets didn’t seem especially pertinent to their shooting investigation at the time, but the importance of any single thing is not always apparent at first glance.

The morning after the shooting, Volusia County’s associate medical examiner Dr. Shiping Bao unzipped the blue body bag on his table in the Daytona Beach morgue and began his autopsy of Trayvon Martin.

Bao, who was fifty years old, was born and raised in China, where he got his medical degree and a graduate degree in radiation medicine. He became a naturalized American and eventually did a four-year residency in pathology at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. After three years at the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office in Fort Worth, he came to Florida for more money. He’d been on the job less than seven months.

Before him now was the corpse of a handsome, well-developed black teenager, neither scrawny nor stocky. Apart from the bloodless bullet hole in his chest and the sooty ring of stippled skin around it, Trayvon Martin looked fit, trim, and healthy.

Ah, but that hole.

The single 9mm bullet that killed him entered his chest square-on, just to the left of his breastbone. It pierced his heart sac, punctured the lower right chamber of the heart, and passed through the lower lobe of his right lung, fragmenting into three pieces along the way. Around the hole itself was a halo of soot, a powder tattoo measuring two by two inches.

His wounded heart had continued to pump, and each contraction gushed blood into his chest cavity, filling it with 2.3 liters of blood—more than two quarts, or about one-third of a normal person’s total blood volume.

Bao didn’t write it down, but he said later that he believed Martin had remained conscious for as long as ten minutes after he was shot, and was likely in great pain.

One thing is almost certain: Conscious or not, Trayvon Martin probably lived very briefly after being shot.

Most gunshot wounds to the heart are not instantaneously fatal. In fact, no matter what you see on TV or in the movies, only gunshot wounds of the brain are likely to be instantaneously fatal … and even then, not always. Unconsciousness depends on three factors: the organ injured, the extent of the injury, and the psychology/physiology of the wounded person. Some people immediately lose consciousness from a minor wound; some are shot through the heart and keep going. One can stay conscious at least five to fifteen seconds from a heart shot.

But we know for sure that when paramedics arrived on the scene ten minutes later, he was dead.

Other than the fatal wound, Bao’s autopsy found only a small, fresh abrasion on Martin’s left ring finger below the knuckle. He didn’t cut into the knuckles of either hand to look for internal bruising around the knuckles that might have proven whether the boy had punched anyone. It might not have proven conclusively that he was the aggressor, but it might have proven he was in a fight.

Martin’s blood and urine also contained low levels of THC—the active ingredient in marijuana—but nobody knows exactly when he used the drugs or if he was high the night he was killed.

This struck Bao as a routine shooting case. He wrapped up his examination in ninety minutes.

“The wound,” Bao wrote in his final autopsy report, “is consistent with a wound of entrance of intermediate range.”

Those two words—intermediate range—quickly reverberated in the echo chamber of American media, which didn’t really know what they meant but seized on the phrase as somehow important. If the muzzle of George Zimmerman’s Kel-Tec wasn’t against Trayvon Martin’s chest when he fired, how far away was it? Was this “intermediate range” shot fired into the kid’s chest from an inch away? Five inches? Three feet? Different forensic experts (and a slew of inexpert commentators) couldn’t seem to agree on the precise meaning of the term.

Worse, the angry drumbeat against Zimmerman was becoming deafening, and this single phrase—intermediate range—only turned up the volume. One side saw “intermediate range” as proof of a summary execution; the other side saw it as a validation of self-defense.

They were both wrong.

When a gun’s trigger is pulled, the firing pin strikes the bullet’s primer, creating a tiny jet of flame that ignites the powder in a cartridge. That sudden ignition creates a burst of hot gas that propels the bullet down the barrel of the gun. It all bursts out—the bullet, hot gases, soot, vaporized metals of the primer, and unburned gunpowder—in a spectacular and deadly plume.

How far this cloud of superheated debris travels varies by gun, barrel length, and the type of gunpowder. Gunshot residue can be found on the clothing and the body of a human victim. It might leave a film of soot, or tattoo the skin around the wound with unburned or partly burned particles of gunpowder that puncture the top layer of the skin, or produce nothing at all. The pattern of this damage—or lack of it—can tell us how far away the gun’s muzzle was when it was fired.

That tattooing (sometimes also called stippling) is the hallmark of an intermediate range gunshot. Shots within a foot or less might leave soot residue. Without stippling, without soot, and without any other residue on the skin or clothing, a gunshot will be classified as distant. A contact wound, in which the muzzle is touching the skin when fired, leaves a completely different wound.

In Trayvon Martin’s case, this tattooing or stippling encircled his wound in a two-inch pattern. The examiner noted soot, too. The pattern suggested to me that the Kel-Tec’s muzzle had been two to four inches from the boy’s skin—intermediate range—when George Zimmerman pulled the trigger.

But while the media-sphere haggled over what the stippling proved, few people noticed a tiny fact in another report hidden deep inside the mountain of documents investigators and prosecutors had dumped on the public before trial.

On this obscure little detail, the whole case pivoted.

Want more? Read an excerpt about reopening the West Memphis Three case over at The History Reader!


Copyright © 2015 Vincent DiMaio, Ron Franscell.

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Vincent J. M. DiMaio, MD, is an American pathologist and an internationally renowned expert on gunshot wounds. Now a private consultant who's performed more than 9,000 autopsies, he's played pivotal roles in some of the most provocative trials and death investigations of the past 40 years. Di Maio was chief medical examiner of San Antonio, Texas, until 2006. He is editor-in-chief of The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology, and has been awarded many honors. In 2014, he was appointed to the U.S. Department of Justice's first-ever National Commission on Forensic Science to help develop uniform federal codes in death investigations.

Ron Franscell is the bestselling crime author of The Darkest Night and Delivered from Evil. He has been praised by Ann Rule, Vincent Bugliosi and other true-crime heavyweights as one of the most provocative new voices in narrative nonfiction.His work regularly appears in publications such as the Washington Post, Chicago Sun-Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Denver Post, San Jose Mercury-News, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. He is also a novelist whose books include Angel Fire and The Deadline. He now lives in Texas.

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