Death Sleuthing 101

Famed medical examiner describes his most intriguing cases.

Posted May 15, 2016

R. Franscell
Source: R. Franscell

I recently watched Dr. Vincent Di Maio show photos from the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case at a session of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences conference. Despite the blasting he took in some media reports for his role, he offered a solid presentation with convincing forensic evidence.

Around me, I sensed that people in the audience “already knew” what had happened during the tragic encounter. Yet Di Maio, the retired Chief Medical Examiner of Bexar County, Texas, and a renowned gunshot expert who’s “seen more bullet holes than a battalion of M*A*S*H surgeons,” surprised them. He closed some significant gaps in popular media accounts.

“My job as a medical examiner,” Di Maio writes in a new book, Morgue: A Life in Death, “is to determine how and why a person died … I don’t take sides.”

Zimmerman shot Martin on February 26, 2012. Zimmerman stated that Martin had attacked him and he’d acted in self-defense. There was a 9-1-1 call, but some people thought it was Martin calling for help, not Zimmerman. Then there was the gunshot: how far was the gun from Martin when Zimmerman shot it?

“While the media-sphere haggled over what the stippling proved,” Di Maio writes, “few people noticed a tiny fact in another report hidden deep inside the mountain of documents investigators and prosecutors had dumped on the public before trial. On this obscure little detail, the whole case pivoted.”

The muzzle of Zimmerman’s gun, he says, was pressed against the fabric of Martin’s hoodie. There was no distance between them. It was consistent with the tale Zimmerman told. The jury apparently accepted this version, as they acquitted him.

Death investigation can pose a challenge. Readers will enjoy how Di Maio systematically dissects the complications to draw out the solutions. Sometimes he must first repair what others have damaged.

"One thread that ties these fascinating cases together,” says co-writer Ron Franscell, “is our tendency, as humans, to leap to conclusions. We often see events through the prism of our own biases and form everlasting conclusions, even before we have all the facts. So one of the roles of forensic science is to deliver objective facts. It should tell us honestly and candidly what we must know as a society. Nevertheless, even with history's most powerful forensic tools, these stories show that popular opinion and scientific facts are frequently at odds, sometimes violently." 

The Zimmerman/Martin encounter is just one of the high-profile cases in this book. You’ll also see Di Maio’s detailed take on the infamous West Memphis Three and the supposed suicide of Vincent van Gogh. In addition, this presiding officer of the Texas Forensic Science Commission describes not one but two cases involving female serial killers. One of them, convicted child killer Genene Jones, has made headlines for her shortened prison term.

The first decision during the investigation of a death incident, Di Maio points out, isn’t always the best decision. Just because investigators can string together a logical case doesn’t mean they have it right. Logic is not the same as truth.

Some jurisdictions have insufficient resources and experience to expertly interpret what happened, and this shortcoming can send innocent people to prison. One badly handled case sadly highlights this issue.

Di Maio’s book, emphasizing the role of a medical examiner vs. a coroner, gives readers a detailed tour into graphic, sometimes hideous death scenes. Those who aspire to do this work can test their stomachs on the descriptions.

“The Why Incision” is a clever title for a biographical chapter that takes us into the death investigation system of New York, where Di Maio’s father was the city’s fourth chief medical examiner. He, too, had some notable cases. I was pleased to see mention of the reopened 1953 “suicide” of CIA scientist Frank Olson, which I wrote about with James Starrs, the person whose team exhumed Olson, featured in A Voice for the Dead.

Speaking of exhumations, you'll find several in this book, including the unearthing of Kennedy assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, to prove to his widow that the person in the grave marked as his was actually him. Here, the book delivers on what readers expect from forensic pathology: a blow-by-blow description of the appearance and handling of a decomposing corpse. All that’s missing is the stench. You'll even get an in-the-moment experience of removing the head.

I asked Franscell what it was like to write with the famed ME.

"One of my challenges, as a storyteller,” he said, “was to pierce the emotional armor that shields medical examiners from the images they’ll never get out of their heads. Dr. Di Maio is one of the world’s best and he’s seen so much that his armor is nearly impenetrable. Dinner-table talk about powder stippling, rigor mortis, and ligature strangulation? No problem. Questions about faith, nightmares, and what makes him cry? That protective veil always came down. In the end, though, I think this long, dark conversation was good for both of us.”

A long, dark conversation it is, and it keeps you turning the page, as each chapter offers a case that you might think you know. But you probably don’t know as much as you think. In Morgue, you’ll learn much more.