A couple of years ago I watched with great interest a CourtTV broadcast of the trial of a Vermont woman named Hope Schreiner. She was charged with murdering her husband by first trying to kill him with a drug overdose and, when that didn’t work, by bludgeoning him to death with an unknown blunt instrument. It was such a classic “Black Widow” case that I used several of the elements in the plot of THE JUROR HANGS.
Black Widow Cases
The classic “Black Widow” murder—it seems to me, a mystery writer—include: 1) a wife who poisons her husband, 2) rumors among friends, family, and neighbors, 3) feeble, pathetic, or incapacitated victims (in other words, a victim whose wife is his caregiver), and 4) stereotypes about women, such as “poison is a woman’s weapon” and an unloving woman is inherently evil.
Time of Death and Air-Tight Alibis
One aspect of the Schreiner prosecution that struck me as particularly unfair was the medical examiner’s testimony about “time of death,” which is one of the three things an autopsy must determine:
- Cause of death (medical)
- Manner of death (legal)
- Time of death (fact)
A medical examiner (usually a physician with a specialty in forensic pathology) conducts an autopsy in cases of suspicious death (usually deaths that occur when the deceased wasn’t under the care of a physician when he died). An autopsy is essentially a dissection of the body, but before the first incision is made in the body the ME must document three physical conditions as a means of determining how long the body has been dead:
- Rigor Mortis: Stiffening of the muscles and joints, beginning in the extremities and progressing toward the torso;
- Lividity: Settling of blood due to gravity, in the lowest parts of the body (back for instance, if the body rests on its back);
- Core body temperature (liver temperature): This requires an incision; a thermometer is inserted into the liver.
Each of these body changes is an indicator of time of death, because the amount of time for each of them to commence and end is well documented. (Note: Each of these is also a very wide range, very imprecise.)Each of these is also affected by the ambient temperature of the environment in which the body was found: in general, the warmer the environment, the slower these processes, while the colder the environment, the faster. The breath of life is literally warm. Even mystery writers know this.
In a murder case, the time of death is critical, because it can prove a defendant’s innocence. If a defendant can prove where she was at the time of death it’s an alibi—an affirmative defense. In many cases, an alibi can completely exonerate a person even before charges are brought.
In most cases, of course, defendants are unable to prove an alibi—not because they’re guilty but because many people are alone most of the time and most people are alone at night—asleep in bed. (Heaven help the defendant who’s accused of committing murder at midnight! Think Juan Mendez, Jr.)
Black Widow Alibis
In the Schreiner case, the defendant had a solid alibi for most of the morning (I think I recall she could document her whereabouts from about 9:00 a.m. to about 11:30 a.m.), but—coincidentally I’m sure—the medical examiner testified that the time of death was after 11:30 a.m. when the defendant was home and later found her husband bludgeoned to death in the driveway at 12:30.
In another so-called “Black Widow” case (the Raynella Dossett-Leath case) the defendant was also accused of having tried first to kill her husband with an overdose of barbiturates and then, when that didn’t work, of staging his suicide by gunshot. She also had a solid alibi for roughly the same time period. At around 11:30 a.m. she discovered her husband’s body in bed with a bullet hole in his forehead. And again—coincidentally I’m sure—the medical examiner testified that the time of death was early morning (before 9:00) when the defendant admitted to have been at home.
No Liver Temperature
In both the Schreiner and the Dossett-Leath cases the medical examiners failed to take a liver temperature before the body was refrigerated. As every mystery writer knows, liver temperature is often the single best indicator of time of death, because both rigor mortis and lividity can increase and subside before the body is discovered, but core body temperature only decreases—and decreases at a relatively predictable rate. In addition, the deceased person’s state of health (good or poor circulation, for instance) can affect both rigor mortis and lividity.
The Schreiner Time of Death
During the Schreiner trial a great deal of testimony had to do with time of death and the alibi. Eventually the defense attorneys managed to elicit an admission from two physicians that no liver temperature was taken. Unfortunately, the defense failed to hammer the implications of this fact home to the jury.
Briefly, the testimony was:
The body was found at around 12:30 outside in the sunlight. The first responder, an EMT, said he had to “crack the jaw” of the victim in order to administer CPR and attempt resuscitation (indication that rigor mortis had begun to set in—in a cold environment this might indicate that death had occurred only about 30 minutes earlier, but in the warm environment it might indicate that death occurred up to two hours earlier).
The first medical examiner on the scene was a volunteer; in fact he just happened to be the victim’s personal physician. While trained to take a liver temperature at the scene of a death, he decided not to do so, because (he said) he didn’t want to upset the deceased’s loved ones who would be looking on (as if they wouldn’t be upset by his bashed-in skull). He also said that there was no rigor mortis present. He had been able to manipulate the jaw easily (of course, the EMT had released it). This physician’s testimony was relied upon by the county medical examiner, who also didn’t take a liver temperature.
The county medical examiner who conducted the autopsy many hours later testified that the time of death could not have been before 11:30, because there was no evidence of rigor mortis when the body was found. Even taking into account that the environment was quite warm, and even though it had lain in the sun for quite some time, he insisted that rigor mortis would not have been present at 1:00 p.m. when the first physician examined the body.
However, it is well known that onset of rigor mortis can be delayed as long as two hours when the body is in a very warm environment.
Obviously, the victim’s time of death in this case could not legitimately have been pinned down to after 11:30, when the EMT had to crack the jaw at 12:30. Since the environment was warm, the time of death could have been as early as 10:30. Had the first medical examiner taken a liver temp
erature, he might have collected far more-accurate data. Instead, the county medical examiner conveniently insisted to the jury that the defendant’s alibi was worthless, because he was sure the time of death couldn’t possibly have been before 11:30.
The Dossett-Leath Time of Death
In the Dossett-Leath case, the defendant had an alibi from about 9:00 a.m. (after breakfast) to 11:30, when she called 911. An hour later, at about 12:30 a police investigator telephoned the medical examiner’s office to notify them of the death. Apparently, no medical examiner ever responded to the scene and, instead, the body was transported to the morgue for the autopsy a couple of hours later.
At the morgue, the medical examiner did not even conduct a superficial examination of the body to determine rigor mortis or lividity at that time. The body was refrigerated and at 8:00 a.m. the next morning was removed and the autopsy conducted.
The autopsy report describes the rigor mortis at that time as present “to an equal extent in all joints” and lividity as “fixed and well developed.” This is hardly surprising given that at least 21 hours had passed and the body was in a refrigerator for at least half that time. The report makes no mention of a core body temperature or a liver temperature.
Nonetheless, at trial the medical examiner declared to the jury that the time of death was before breakfast—just coincidentally at a time for which the defendant had no alibi.
Sidebar: I wrote recently about the revolver found in the deceased’s hand; it seemed to me as if the cops must have removed it from his hand before they called the medical examiner’s office. Subsequently, the defense attorneys discovered that the cops had, in fact, removed the gun. Now that I’m thinking about time of death, it occurs to me that this might indicate something about the degree of rigor mortis at the time the body was discovered. The finger and hand joints are among the first to grow stiff in rigor mortis (it begins in the head area). If the gun was easily removed from the hand, would that indicate the death was recent? At least within the past two hours? And that rigor mortis had not yet commenced?
Black Widow Alibis
I know, two data points (two trials and two MEs) do not make proof, but I think it’s very strange the way female defendants’ alibis can be disproven by autopsies that don’t really address the physical evidence of time of death.
The medical examiners in these two cases aren’t the only MEs who seem to play fast and loose with time-of-death findings. But in both these cases, female defendants were found guilty, despite their good alibis, in large part because the MEs set the time of death at a time not covered by the alibi. Is it just me? Or does this sound as if the MEs talked to the police before they decided on a time of death?