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The Time of Death
As Determined by a Coroner

By Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, B.Sc., M.D., Ph.D.

Article printed on page 14 in the March 7, 2004 issue,
title: How Do You Determine the Time of Death?
Reprinted on page 19 in the August 27-28 issue of
The Mississauga News under the feature: Health & Wellness, Medical Matters.
Portrait of Dr. Peter W. Kujtan, supplied 2005
Dr. Peter W. Kujtan

One of the most frequent questions that a coroner encounters revolves around the exact time of death. The coroner's approach to a death scene must be methodical and organized. I employ the principles of careful observation and hypothesis testing. At most scenes, numerous clues are present before a close scrutiny of the body takes place. Preservation of evidence and safety of the investigators are key principles. Generally, I take the approach of attempting to retrace the last few hours in the victim's life. This may involve taking notice of seemingly trivial details. Ambient temperatures, layouts, clutter, security, mail, and many other factors come into play. To be methodical takes time and the investigation frequently inconveniences many people. At times, roadways, homes and public places must be sealed off. It involves a team approach amongst coroners, detectives, pathologists, police specialists and others. CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) shows glamorize many aspects of this work. The majority of cases are not crimes. Difficult cases are rarely solved in 50 minutes with commercials and wearing halter tops. Everyone's fingerprints and DNA are not on my palm-pilot, and magical computer data bases that somehow track every aspect of our existence only to spew out an answer in the nick of time are still on my Christmas wish list. Careful observation and gathering of clues, then massaging the mixture with human gray matter is still the most effective tool that I know of.

When we die, bodily functions cease and the body assumes a natural position determined by gravity. The body temperature begins to fall immediately. The ability of muscle cells to contract and expand is lost and the muscles become fixed in a state called rigor mortis. Depending on environmental conditions, this process becomes complete in a few hours. The body then assumes a fixed position. It is difficult to move a body to a new location and make it appear natural. This is not a permanent process and is lost with decomposition. Another clue as to the time of death is the amount of lividity. Our blood is a composite of salt water with solid cells and particles suspended within it. As long as it is being pumped around the body, the cells remain in suspension. After death, flow stops and the cells begin to settle with gravity. Red blood cells make up almost half of the suspended material. They settle to the lowest part of the body with gravity. This imparts a red coloring or lividity to the areas closest to the ground. The core temperature of the body is another clue, although repeated measures to define the rate of loss become more significant at times. Our bodies begin to decompose almost immediately following death. If there are flies in the vicinity, they will lay eggs, and the stage of development of larvae found on the body provides another clue. But one of the first and foremost clues is odor. Advanced human decomposition is associated with a familiar yet putrid odor that lingers very thickly in the air. All of these clues are interwoven with scene evidence to provide a time of death. The precision found in television scripts in which the time of death is narrowed down to minutes is not realistic. Estimates can range from hours to days.

Related resources:

What Causes Rigor Mortis? By Anne Marie Helmenstine, Chemistry Expert, Ph.D., Biomedical Sciences, University of Tennessee at Knoxville; B.A., Physics and Mathematics, Hastings College. Dr. Helmenstine is a science writer, educator, and consultant. She has taught science courses at the high school, college, and graduate levels., Aug 2, 2021.

Estimating time of death with Forensic Entomology by Morten Stærkeby (Staerkeby), Dept. of Biology, Oslo, Norway. (Article no longer available, July 21, 2023).

The use of insects in forensic investigations: An overview on the scope of forensic entomology by Isaac Joseph, Deepu G Mathew, Pradeesh Sathyan, and Geetha Vargheese, National Library of Medicine, J Forensic Dent Sci. 2011 Jul-Dec; 3(2): 89–91.

Postmortem Changes - What happens after death? By Rutwik Shedge; Kewal Krishan; Varsha Warrier; Tanuj Kanchan, National Library of Medicine, National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), July 25, 2022.

Decomposition - Forensic Evidence from Australian Museum.

The Virtual Autopsy - 18 cases from University of Leicester.

How Autopsies Work - Time of Death Certainty Principle by Robert Valdes & Patrick J. Kiger, HowStuffWorks.

The Zoo Man and the Insects - Re: time of death in the 1999 trial of Thomas D. Huskey, by Katherine Ramsland.

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