The original version of this post was eaten by WordPress. Thanks, WordPress. We’re off to a great start. Anyway, it may be shorter, but that’s probably a good thing. I was thinking in the beginning that I would need to start off with some sort of profound outline on the medical examiner system and how it works, but what prompted me to get this ball rolling was a bit of a rant.
And that rant is: There are no updates in death investigation. And that fucking sucks.
Just to be clear, I am not a death investigator. I am a tech, short for autopsy technician, which our county has generously bestowed the title of forensic pathology technician on us to make us sound important (which we are, but more on that in another post…). But I think it’s fair to say that it’s lame for everyone in our office that we’re given no updates on the cases that come through us.
Want to know the biggest difference between forensics on TV shows and forensics in real life? On a show, there are only about 5-6 main characters. Usually consisting of 1-2 protagonists, some sidekick characters (either cops or lab geeks like on CSI), and 1 or 2 recurring special characters. That’s a good thing considering, let’s face it, more than that and the audience will get confused and lose track of what the hell is going on. So these 5-6 characters do absolutely everything. They go on scene to collect evidence, conduct all the interviews and interrogations, put the clues together, and even make the arrests so that by the end of the hour they can tie the story up in a pretty little bow just in time for the next episode. My favorite example in this formula is Castle. We have the lead homicide detective and her co-star writer/love interest, 2 somewhat comedic detective sidekicks, and 1-2 medical examiners that go out on scenes, do the whole autopsy themselves, etc. Everything else in between is usually the domain of an amorphous “CSU” (“Let’s get CSU on it!”) that never makes a physical appearance. Not to pick on Castle by any means, it’s actually one of the better ones – at least they wear gloves!
In reality, death investigation is a massive team effort. This is especially true in a large urban area with a massively high case load, which is what I’m writing about. It consists of police, death investigators, pathologists, the technicians, crime lab, etc. There are a lot of hands in the forensic pie. And interaction between divisions is often limited to a few liaisons (such as homicide detectives being present for the autopsy) or exchanging paperwork with the nice ladies at evidence receiving (such as dropping off specimens at the crime lab). Death investigation and the final autopsy report can takes weeks. Prosecution? Sometimes years. Nancy (not her real name), an investigator, was telling me yesterday that she’s getting subpoenas for a case from over 7 years ago. To describe the process in over-simplified way, what we do is the investigators get a call that there’s a body. The investigators investigate, and then with the removers take the body back to the office, where we collect evidence and cut them open or sign them out, the pathologist signs the DC (death certificate), and we release them to the funeral home. And that’s the end of it for us. There are no updates. There is no “we caught the bad guy!” or “good job on collecting that DNA, it won the case!” And I feel that especially the investigators ought to at least get some sort of update, considering that they’re in the field. At least for the technicians it makes some sense that we’re left out because we’re stuck in our morgue cave all day every day. The only follow up we get is usually from A) a pathologist is called to court, which they usually can’t talk about and B) the news.
Hence, we watch the news. I have never been a mainstream local news person before, preferring the internet and my niche news sources. But since starting this job a few months ago, I have picked up the habit that all of my coworkers have in watching the news religiously for work. Usually I keep an eye out for homicides (because they can be more physically and mentally exhausting, so it’s always nice to have a heads up), but also for the rare update.
Which prompted this post. This morning I opened my favorite local newspaper site and saw on the front page an article about a homicide we processed. They arrested someone based on the DNA from under the fingernails collected by one of the other technicians. Fuck yeah.
So no updates. But it’s nice when we get them.