Behind The Tape
Sunday, February 07 2010
Grrrrreetings Class! Our Forensics lesson for today is Putrefaction, stages of decay. There is a really big Ewwwww Factor involved with putrefaction. We call these cases "stinkers." Your first big clue that your body is in an advanced stage of decay is that when you arrive on the scene, the patrol officers are sitting in their cars. At this point, you don't even have to roll down the car window to tell that your body is a stinker. Except for a Medical Examiner that I knew who was completely fascinated with the science of decomposition, no one really likes to work stinker cases because, well, they stink. They also manage to "linger" on your clothes and in your nose. You can work a stinker case in the morning, and that evening, people in the elevator will still be able to tell that you worked a stinker. I have come home from work 8 hours later to find that my cadaver dog alerted on me and announced, "I KNOW what you've been doing!" It's a smell you don't forget.
(By the way, I never put anything like Vicks in my nose to mask the smell. I don't want my nasal passages opened any more than they already are when working a stinker case.)
Here are my "unofficial" stages of decomposition:
1) Stage One - Body looks normal. Decay begins on the inside and moves out. There is a slight "musty" odor but otherwise the body is unoffensive until the Medical Examiner starts rolling him over. That's when things inside (that have already begun to decay) start sloshing around. Generally a brownish liquid comes out the nose and mouth and other openings. We call this "purge." Intesinal gases produce a distinctive sulfur-type smell. The trick here is to do everything you want to do with the scene BEFORE you start moving the body. The old adage, "the more you stir it, the more it stinks," certainly comes to mind.
2) StageTwo - a greensish skin discoloration begins to creep across the abdomen, chest and thighs. This is sort of aquamarine-colored. The gases expand inside the body and it begins to swell. The skin loosens in places and any little bit of pressure causes it to slip off the body. (Yes, it is every bit as gross as it sounds.) The tongue and eyes begin to protrude. Sometimes you can hear the body "creak" as the gases work. It sounds to me a bit like rice crispies in milk, or a ship "creaking" as it rocks at sea.
3) Stage Three - the greenish skin color goes to purple and black. Hair and nails loosen. At this point the scalp often comes loose and falls off. Ewwwwww.....
4) Stage Four - greasy, brownish-black Ewwww..... (My completely unofficial term for this stage!) The flesh is decomposing off the body and, in essence, soaking into the ground. It forms a greasy, black "burned" spot.
These stages are merely a guideline. They depend upon environmental conditions. Temperature, humidity, bacteria inside the body, and insect activity, can all affect the rate of decomposition. On the internet you will be able to find more exact descriptions of decomposition. I did note, however, that authors always seem tempted to give a timeline. For instance, they will say that "at 7 days, you will begin to see the body undergo such and such change." My response to this is "horse hockey!" That is one thing this job has taught me. Just as sure as you say that you won't see a body undergo a particular change until the 7th day, you will find 5 witnesses who saw your victim at a convenience store four days ago! (where he will undoubtedly be on camera, purchasing a lottery ticket!)
So remember this, the body begins decomposition from the inside and works out. It does undergo certain changes in a particular order, but that varies and you can find that certain body parts are decomposiing slower or faster depending upon environmental conditions. Don't lock yourself into an exact timeline by hour or number of days because conditions vary.