Crime fiction often features crime scenes, investigations and autopsies. Learn more about the reality of it so you can write it fresher, bigger and more in depth in your own books. Don't think this information is limited to just crime scenes, however, think about it: if your werewolf or vampire doesn't want to be detected, this is good information for he or she to know. Working on an intrigue or a romantic suspense? You may not need to show all the gritty details, but you will want to know what could happen if it's important to your story.
Q&A with Dr. Reade Quinton
11. Reasons why an autopsy is important:
In the forensic setting, the most important reason for performing the autopsy is to determine cause and manner of death. We also identify remains, collect evidence, identify infectious disease or hereditary conditions, etc. While hospital autopsies (non-forensic) do not do these things, they focus more on identification of disease, hereditary conditions, extent of disease (how far a cancer has spread), efficacy of treatment, quality assurance for the hospital, and teaching for medical students and residents.
12. How can I get a copy of the autopsy report?
In the state of Texas, autopsy reports are public record. You can request a report from the ME office for a small fee.
13. How often do you have to testify?
Usually about twice a month, but sometimes there are multiple trials in the same week.
14. How do you prepare for testifying?
I typically review the case file (mostly the autopsy report and scene investigation) and the associated photos and diagrams. We often sit down with the prosecution to review the case prior to trial, and occasionally meet with defense. Defense rarely asks, but we are just as willing to talk to them.
15. How do you determine time of death?
Unlike television, we can only provide rough estimates: within a few hours, within the last day, 2-3 days, weeks to months…We base this on temperature (is the body warm or cool?), rigor mortis, livor mortis, and decompositional change (bloating, skin discoloration, insect activity). Rates vary highly based on the environment (in a hot car, in an air conditioned apartment, in the woods).
16. Can you explain the various types of rigor (inappropriate, involuntary) and what they mean to an investigation?
I am not familiar with these terms as described here. It is “appropriate” that at some point all dead people go into rigor and eventually lose their rigor. “Inappropriate” may be addressing the position of the body in relation to the rigor. If a body is in a seated position, they will be in full rigor in that position. Move the body at that point to the bed or floor, and their rigor is “inappropriate” because it reflects a curled seated position. All rigor is “involuntary,” meaning that if it was voluntary it would be “willed” by a live person, which is impossible (except in fiction…)
17. What is the toughest cause of death to determine?
This is a tough question, but I would have to go with many asphyxial deaths like smothering. Unlike TV, you will not see pillow fibers in the airway, etc. A smothered body often times has no findings or non-specific findings. Often times these cases are determined almost exclusively by interviews and scene investigation.
18. Do you use casts for dental or weapon impressions?
Yes, occasionally for both. A forensic odontologist assists us with dental impressions. Our firearms and toolmark analysis team deals with toolmarks from knives, etc.
19. Do any forensic shows get it right?
We are more like “Scrubs” than “CSI.” Almost every show will overshoot plausibility at some point (otherwise it wouldn’t be interesting). Not even the “true” television shows like Dr. G are completely accurate.