08
May
06

“Diagnosis Drowning”

The following comment/question was posted by TCat .

I was wondering if you could tell me what a body of a child looks like after being in the water(drowned)for 2 weeks to 1 month. The weight 110lbs. Drowned or Murdered/ Sexually Assaulted? is the question. Fully clothed. Any criminal knows that water will wash evidence away, all you have to do is watch TV. What if the examiner does not do an accurate examination and the cause of death is ruled “AN ACCIDENTAL DROWNING” just because they can tell the body has been emerged into water for a long period of time when other evidence points to foul play? Would ligature marks show up? What about strangulation marks? Are they even looked for? I figure that it is easier to speculate drowning in a case like this and move on to the next case. 20 ft and icy?

Please reply

TCat,

Ideally, every case is treated as suspicious until evidence supporting such a suspicion is ruled out. Still, any death involving a child or a drowning is placed under even more scrutiny–if such a thing is possible (i.e., giving a case 120% instead of just 100%). That said, any recognizable signs of ligature marks and strangulation that remain visible–internal or external–should be recognized during the course of a standard postmortem examination.

The temperature of the water and the physiology of the individual dictate the extent and rate of progression of postmortem changes. From the two weeks to one month range you presented, I would expect to find extremely wrinkled skin on the hands and feet, bloating, skin slippage, and discoloration–but these characteristics are likely to progress more slowly in icy waters. Depending on the length of submersion and the condition of the body when found, there should be findings like edematous airways and enlarged lungs at autopsy that confirm a drowning took place rather than simply a disposal.

Even if a body was submerged for an extended period of time, assuming it was an accidental drowning would be as inaccurate as calling it a homicide without specific signs of evidence on which to base the classification. The possibility that exposure of the body to the elements may have “disguised” potential evidence is exactly the reason the death would be classified as unknown because a possibility exists that it could be either. In other words, an accident isn’t a “default diagnosis.” It should take as much evidence for a pathologist to rule a death as an accident as it does for them to rule a death as a homicide.

Water may wash away external trace evidence deposited on the body, but it doesn’t wash away trauma inflicted on the body or preserved within the body. As far as criminals and television are concerned, if criminals are watching television, it isn’t making them any smarter. Fortunately, most homicidal acts are committed on the spur of the moment with little effective premeditation on the part of the perpetrator. I say fortunately because it tends to make the crime easier for police to solve. Based on the resolution rate of television cases, you’d think criminals would learn to give up their profession altogether, but apparently they haven’t learned that either.

Soapbox Warning

On a personal note, I feel that any medical examiner who would find it “easier to speculate drowning in a case like this and move on to the next case” should move on to their next career.

A Douglas

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5 Responses to ““Diagnosis Drowning””


  1. May 8, 2006 at 11:15 pm

    Very interesting.

  2. May 9, 2006 at 8:00 pm

    “On a personal note, I feel that any medical examiner who would find it “easier to speculate drowning in a case like this and move on to the next case? should move on to their next career”

    I couldnt agree more

  3. May 13, 2006 at 1:11 am

    Very interesting stuff. I appreciate your thoughtful replys to questions such as these. If such an issue were bothering me, I’m not even sure where one could turn to for such straightforward and useful information. Well done!

  4. May 13, 2006 at 5:31 pm

    Douglas,

    Thank you. Inept medical examiner & police
    department.

    Sherry

  5. 5 Kate
    July 13, 2006 at 1:11 am

    Thanks for the tip on using the sheets. DUH! I should have thought of that myself. We’ve been double-bagging the messy ones with a light weight bag then a heavier bag on the outside. A sheet is cheaper and easier as well.
    Do you generally take photos from all angles when picking up a body, or just a few? I’ve often found them to be very useful, though they don’t always seem so right at first.
    Love your blog!


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