Death Investigator Speaks at Hilbert
by Morgan Nellis
On Monday, October 16, The CJ/FS club brought in a Death Investigator to give a speech for students to learn more about the career. Andy McNeil began his much-anticipated speech talking about his career and some cases he had worked on. McNeil took the time to explain how he ended up where he is today. In 1996, he received his master’s degree in Forensic Science at George Washington University. He was then hired as a crime technician in 1998 and worked the roads and patrolled until 2004. In his next few years, he became a certified Collision Reconstructionist and a Latent Print Examiner. He now teaches photography, evidence technician, and fingerprint courses at an academy.
For the last couple of years, he was hired by the state to teach arson photography at the state fire academy. For the past 13 years, he has worked for the sheriff’s office in Monroe County and been assigned to major crimes downtown near headquarters. The Sheriff’s Headquarters is located in the Monroe County Public Safety Building on the Civic Center Plaza, 130 South Plymouth Avenue, Rochester, New York.
In McNeil’s Technical Serves Unit, they investigate all crimes from simple shed burglaries to fatal car crashes to rape, robberies, and homicides. They are even called to many non-criminal matters, such as suicides or anything that involves a large dollar amount.
A few years ago, his department decided a crime scene tech was needed at every single unattended death in the county, no matter the circumstances. He stated that a person could be murdered and he would come, or even if a person had been terminally ill, laying in their hospital bed at home and then died, he would come to the scene. Many of his investigations worked hand-in-hand with the Monroe County medical examiners office, and together their agencies would try to piece together what had happened.
For most cases, often criminal and insurance cases, time of death (TOD) is very important to the investigation. McNeil states, “Establishing a time of death can tell us where this investigation is going to go.” The absolute trump card to a solid TOD is if it was witnessed. For example, the hospital scenes on TV, you often hear the doctor say, “I’m calling it, time of death is….” However, since most cases do not happen with a witness present, physical evidence is used to find a range of time for TOD. A range of time is used because unless witnessed, no one can definitively determine to the minute what the TOD was. Another problem is that the longer the postmortem interval, or until the body was discovered, the harder it is to pinpoint a range of time.
Investigator McNeil says, “There is no single, definitive reliable method for determining time of death.” TOD is an estimate; it is based on the totality of factors. McNeil says, “We know that the human body, from the time of death until of complete disarticulation, turning back into dust, goes through a predictable series of changes. The predictable part is the order in which things tend to happen; the unpredictable part is how fast that happens.” Things like the temperature, environment, humidity, air currents, illness, drug use, the person’s physical condition all effect a body’s decomposition rate. These factors can either speed up or slow down the rate of decomposition, which needs to be understood so TOD can be determined as accurately as possible.
Some of these predictable changes to the body include rigor mortis, livor mortis, and algor mortis. Rigor mortis is the stiffening of the muscles after death. The process starts with the smaller muscles and, as time goes on, all the muscles stiffen, which is called full rigor, often occurring after 8 hours, then loosen. The entire process takes approximately 36 hours. However, temperature can play a role. If the environment is warmer, the rate may speed up, while in colder temperatures, things can slow down.
If the body is discovered in full rigor, investigators can possibly learn if the body was moved. McNeil’s example was that if a person was found lying on the ground in a chair position, then they most likely died in a chair and were later moved onto the floor.
Livor mortis is the “settling of the blood,” with the heart not pumping, blood begins to settle in the lower portions of the body, due to gravity. However, the blood doesn’t pool in pressure points. This is because the capillaries are compressed and can’t fill with blood. McNeil explains that if a person were sitting when they died, they often have a white or pale buttock, due to the pressure and blood not being able to pool there.
Part of the predictability of livor mortis is that it starts right away, and after 8 to 12 hours, lividity becomes permanent, like a permanent stain. However, lividity can sometimes be confused with carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide binds to hemoglobin better than oxygen. If a person dies due to carbon monoxide, the body area closest to the chemical will become discolored, looking similar to lividity markings.
Algor mortis is the post-mortem cooling of the body. On average, after the first hour of death, the body will cool at about 1.5 ˚F per hour. However, this is susceptible to the temperature of the environment. A body outside will cool faster than a body indoors in cool weather, and a body’s temperature may rise if left in a very hot environment. On TV shows, TOD is often determined by a temperature reading from the livor at the crime scene, in reality, they don’t do this. Yes, a core temp can help determine TOD, but it is not done on site and not often used to determine TOD at all.
A few more predictable investigations the body undergoes after death are examining the GI tract, the presence of insects, vitreous humor potassium levels, and decomposition. The GI tract, or gastrointestinal tract, has a predictable interval of how food moves through the body. If food is still in the stomach, compared to the intestines, TOD was much sooner. Insects with their predictable life cycles are a great help for determining TOD. Blow flies are often the first species of flies to show up on a dead body, often appearing within an hour. They have an approximate lifespan of 130 hours, and TOD can be determined by how many generations were found around the body. Vitreous humor is, as McNeil stated, the “jelly of the eye.” The potassium level, which can be determined from the eyes, can help determine TOD. Lastly, decomposition starts immediately after death. McNeil stated that due to the build-up of gasses, a body will create a smell that will be very recognizable at about 24 hours after death.
After Investigator McNeil finished his PowerPoint presentation, he decided to share some cases photos with the audience. The first case was that of an 8- or 9-year-old case where a woman had committed suicide. There was some doubt that case was a suicide and not a homicide due to circumstances involving the husband. As McNeil went through the pictures, he pointed out many of the predictable changes that body goes through to help show how these factors can help determine TOD.
The second case was only a couple years old, possibly from 2015, where a man had decided to take his own life with a shot gun in a lake cabin. In this case, McNeil pointed out how pressure buildup in the head from the shot had left human debris all over the cabin. The audience was also shown what blow-back is and how that can help provide information in a case, too.
Case number three was an unattended death of a prostitute. An unattended death simply means that no one seemed to be there at the time of death. The woman had just gotten out of the hospital and was deemed to be extremely ill, and after a fall and a knock to her head, she died.
The last case was an older case that involved a mother who had killed her father-in-law, her daughter, and then herself. Throughout the case photos, McNeil pointed out many things he had mentioned prior to the photos, as well as things that could help in the specific case.
McNeil’s visit was very informative and a great look into a future career for the forensic majors, and possibly the criminal justice majors, of Hilbert College.
The CJ/FS club has invited Scott Paronik to speak to students about digital forensics on October 23 at 3 p.m., location TBD. If interested, keep your ears open and mark your calendars, because these speakers are free to see and can give you a great look into the Forensic/Criminal Justice world beyond Hilbert College.
Photo: Andy McNeil speaking to students
Photographer: Dr. Mark Paoni