science provides a number of solutions to solving the mystery question
of when a person died. Generally, the longer it has been since the
death, the less accurate the estimation given by forensic pathologists.
Select one of the following topics for more information:
lies in the eyes
||Police arriving at
the scene of crime should be capable of estimating how long
a person has been dead for, by judging from the body temperature
and stiffness of the corpse. However, a more accurate evaluation
of the time since death must be made by a forensic pathologist
in the forensic laboratory. The pathologists/coroners record
the temperature of the body, the temperature at the scene of
crime, the weight of the victim and all other appropriate variables,
which are then applied to a formula designed to predict the
time since death. The core body temperature drops at an estimated
rate of 0.8K each hour from the time of death, but is ever-changing
dependant the surrounding temperature, humidity levels, air
movement and fat levels in the body. Thus, the less time that
has surpassed since the death, the less variables which will
affect the prediction.
is an effective measure of the time since death in cases where
the victim died within a matter of days. Photo courtesy of www.freeimages.co.uk.
|Stiffening of the corpse occurs between
just 30 minutes and 3 hours after death. The process is called rigor
mortis and occurs as the muscles in the body begin to stiffen
from a lack of blood and oxygen. Rigor mortis first becomes apparent
in the eyelids and jaws of the victim and spreads throughout the whole
body in approximately 6 to 12 hours, before receding again after another
6 to 12 hours. Occasionally, stiffening of the body may not even occur
if the surrounding temperatures are very low, while the process occurs
a lot quicker in muscles that were quite active before death. Like
body temperature, the evidence provided by the level of muscle stiffening
becomes of little use after a long period since death.
Lies In The Eyes
|The eyes of a victim
can also hold answers to the time of death, as a thin cloudy film
is developed over the eye within 3 hours after death has occurred.
The eyeballs become softer as a result of less fluid pressure behind
the eye and the degree to which this has occurred can be used as a
measure of the time since death. Again, a less common procedure for
deaths that evidently occurred out of the limit of several days.
computer generated image of the eyes after death. Diluted pupils and
a cloudy film are apparent. Photo thanks to www.imageafter.com.
|The colour of the corpse
will also help determine the time of death from about 48 hours and
onwards. From approximately 48 hours after death, bacteria begins
to breed on the skin, giving the skin an evidently greenish tone.
The tinge starts in the lower stomach area, spreading outwards and
affecting the hands and feet last. Approximately 4-7 days after death,
the skin will acquire a marble-like appearance, as the veins in the
body become closer to the surface, thus becoming more easily visible.
|The pooling of the blood can be a
vital clue in determining the time of death and is known as hypostasis.
This occurs when the blood ceases flowing, settling in the lowest
parts of the body and in turn, causing the skin to become pink and
red in colour. This process is complete in up to 6 hours after death.
The main use of blood pooling analysis actually lies in helping to
determine the death manner (noting that the location of the blood
pools indicates the upright position of the body at the time of blood
pooling) The process does however, form a method of predicting the
time since death.
The digestive system and gut contents
of a victim can provide important clues to the time of death
of a victim. Chewed food will firstly pass through the oesophagus
and then down into the stomach within seconds of the initial
swallowing. After 3 hours, the food then leaves the stomach
and heads toward the small intestines. 6 hours after eating
a meal, the food will have traveled half way through the small
intestines and begin moving through the large intestine. Where
the victim's small intestine is empty, it suggests that the
victim ate his or her last meal approximately 8 hours before
death. The digestive process usually takes a bit more than
a day, but it can be affected by sickness, liquid intake,
fear or drug intake.
Pathologists also briefly note that correct
level of food digestion corresponds to its location
in the digestive system. In the rare case that a clever murderer
wishes to delude investigators by attempting to bring forward
the time of the victim's last meal (giving them an explanation
for where they were at the victim's time of death), he/she
may manually feed processed food (resembling that of chewed
food) into the victim's stomach. If this is so, the food collected
in the stomach will be much less digested than normal, since
the periodic motion of the stomach stops after death. The
food may indeed appear slightly broken down, due to the presence
of the stomach acids, but any abnormalities are otherwise
detectable. In older people or in those affected by the effects
mentioned earlier (sickness, fear, drug/liquid intake), the
efficiency of food digestion alters and it is left to pathologists
to determine if the extent of the undigested food is great
enough to suggest the mentioned scenario.
The digestive system includes the eosophagus, stomach, liver,
gall bladder, duodenum, pancreas, ascending/ transverse/ descending
colons, rectum, anus, appendix, cecum, small intestines and
jejunum. Photo courtesy of Your
Digestive System and How It Works.
also provide an approximate time of death, very useful for cases where
the body has been long dead. Only certain insects will feed and lay
eggs on a dead corpse and forensic entomologists study these insects,
cycles and thereafter can determine whether a body has been dead for
just one day or up to 3 or 4 weeks.
development is a good indicator for deaths which concern a matter
of months. Photo courtesy of Valeri
Craigle and the Spencer
S. Eccles Health Sciences Library.
Physical Appearance of Body
Insects Present at that Stage
||0-3 days Proteins
and carbohydrates in the deceased body begin to break down.
Bluebottle flies, Syrphidae flies
||Body is starting
to decay and causes the abdomen to inflate because of the gases
||Fly larvae and
beetle e.g. Rove Beetles
||8-18 days Decay
is well and truly setting in; the abdomen wall begins to break
beetles and flies
||The decaying body
enters a stage know as 'post-decay'; in wet, humid conditions,
the body is sticky and wet; in hot dry conditions, the body
is dried out.
||Beetles and mites
e.g. Springtail beetle, Acari, Nematocera (present only during
the winter months), Brachycera
and over days
bones, skin and hair that remain no longer give off a powerful
stench and smell just like the soil surrounding it.
|Decay can also determine how long
a person has been dead for and in Tennessee, a special research area
has been set up to study exactly how and why bodies decay. The research
farm, known as The Body Farm, was established in 1981 by Bill Bass,
a professor of forensic anthropology. By having decaying bodies readily
available to study, Bass and his students discovered a number of factors
contributing to body decay. Some things they discovered include that
flies and maggots will turn a body in to a skeleton in under two weeks
in warmer weather and the face will always rot first because maggots
prefer wet places. He has also observed how fast bodies decay when
submerged in water, stored in the boot of a car, or wrapped in plastic
and that when a person's head is burnt, that the skull reaches boiling
point very quickly, causing the skull to explode. If the person head
doesn't explode, it means that the victim may have been shot in the
head, allowing the steam to escape.