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View Full Version : Broken Neck in VERY old corpse?



Hip-Hop-a-potamus
09-26-2010, 04:00 AM
So I'm doing some massive rewrites of my WIP right now, since the querying hasn't been going exceptionally well. Trying to tighten and polish a bit.

It's 1986, and my detective is working on a case that is 70 years old. A skeleton has been unearthed from 1916, and the ME is letting him know about all the particulars of possible cause of death.

They have not found any weapons nearby, nor any shell casings or things of that nature. Does anyone know if you can identify a broken neck by the neck bones of a skeleton? I wasn't sure if it was one of the actual bones that was broken, or massive musculature/spinal cord interworkings that was severed that would have degraded after all that time.

Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

GeorgeK
09-26-2010, 04:08 AM
Maybe, it depends upon the details of the fracture and the state of the bones/body (deep or shallow burial, with/without coffin in wet environment or dry environment, predation etc). Assuming the skeleton is intact, a burst fracture would be easy to tell, a dislocation that resulted in death, maybe maybe not depending upon whether there is soft tissue left. It would also depend upon the victim's relative health as to what type of injury they'd be more likely to have suffered.

Basically, it could most likely be feasible to do whatever you want.

Jessianodel
09-26-2010, 04:09 AM
Well if they died because of the broken neck, a simple x-ray would show them (if the body hadn't yet decomposed). They died before the bones had started to heal, so they would still appear obviously broken. On the other hand, if the body has decomposed, they would find bone fragments, and breaks in the bones. But as to whether it was deliberate murder, that's another story.

Hip-Hop-a-potamus
09-26-2010, 04:30 AM
She actually didn't die because of a broken neck, but I wanted the ME to rule it out for the detective, and wanted to make sure he could or couldn't tell. So it sounds like I'm good.

Thanks, guys!

Tsu Dho Nimh
09-26-2010, 06:33 AM
Why are they investigating a murder from 1916? The chances of finding the murderer alive to prosecute are basically zero.

whacko
09-26-2010, 05:18 PM
Hi Hip-hop,

Yes is the simple answer. I'm not a doctor but I saw a tv show about serial killer Dennis Nielsen last week. In this, a policeman gave the doctor a bit of bone, merely wanting confirmation of human or animal origin. The doctor gave an instant diagnosis though. The bone was part of the neck and the sawbones identified the damage.

But as Tsu Dho Nimh, Pseu for short?, says - Why are they investigating a murder from 1916?

Regards

Hip-Hop-a-potamus
09-26-2010, 06:49 PM
As to the crime, it is because it has a very personal connection for someone investigating it. I have backdated the story to 1986 so the murderer WAS still alive, albeit in very bad health. And it isn't necessarily to prosecute the guy, as they know starting out that whoever did it is probably dead. It had been an urban legend for many years, and there are several interested parties who are fascinated by the case and want to know what happened.

Why not let me worry about that part? Several beta readers have really liked the job I did with the story. It just needs more tweaking, obviously. Thus, the rewrites. ;)

jclarkdawe
09-26-2010, 09:04 PM
As to the crime, it is because it has a very personal connection for someone investigating it. I have backdated the story to 1986 so the murderer WAS still alive, albeit in very bad health. And it isn't necessarily to prosecute the guy, as they know starting out that whoever did it is probably dead. It had been an urban legend for many years, and there are several interested parties who are fascinated by the case and want to know what happened.

Why not let me worry about that part? Several beta readers have really liked the job I did with the story. It just needs more tweaking, obviously. Thus, the rewrites. ;)

Because we're trying to figure the context. For a criminal case in the United States, you need a doctor to testify to a medical (or scientific) certainty that the cause of death was by whatever. A medical certainty is not an absolute fact, but is still a very high standard of reliability. Or if the doctor can't testify to a medical certainty, he has to testify to a medical probability, supported by additional facts. A hundred doctors coming in to testify will not raise a medical probability to a medical certainty.

The older the corpse, the less likely a doctor is going to arrive at a medical certainty. Once a body has reached a certain level of decomposition, a medical certainty becomes nearly impossible to reach. For example, let's say you've got a skeleton with several ribs scored or broken consistent with a gun shot wound and showing no signs of healing. The medical probability is that the person died as a result of a gun shot. However, you can't say with certainty that the person died from a gun shot. For example, many poisons don't show up in bones, drowning is a distinct possibility that won't show up in bones either, and a brain tumor will have decomposed into nothingness.

Below a medical certainty are various levels of speculation, which are meaningless by and large for criminal investigations. You've got a skeleton that has been decomposing for 70 years, and most likely, all a pathologist will say is medical speculation, although some causes of death might reach a medical probability. Probably the pathologist's testimony in a criminal case would be at best meaningless, or worse just plain not allowed.

But if the purpose is not to prosecute a criminal, then you have a much larger scope of operations. Medical speculation where the doctor says, "Well, after looking at everything, I think this is what probably happened." Noticed the two highlighted weasel words. This would not be allowed normally in a criminal case, although would be fine in a civil suit. And for the purpose of your story, would probably be all you need.

So for the purposes of medical speculation, yes, you can identify a broken neck by the skeleton. You may even be able, depending upon the breaks and the damage caused, identify it to be the cause of death to a medical probability. But most likely, you are not going to be able to identify it as the cause of death from a skeleton to a medical certainty.

Best of luck,

Jim Clark-Dawe

Hip-Hop-a-potamus
09-27-2010, 03:04 AM
Thanks Jim for clarifying that.

The ME sent some material to the lab to discover whether it was poison. He has also ruled out a broken neck at this point thank to everyone's feedback. There appear to be no bullet wounds (no massive damage to the bones, no shell casings nearby etc). He sees no obvious scraping on the bones initially that would indicate stabbing.

However, after he examines the bones more closely, he notices scraping in a very unusual place and lets the detective know that. Combined with what the detective is finding in his investigation, it fits, and it becomes obvious that the girl had an abortion (or an attempted abortion) before her death, and that could have caused her death.

GeorgeK
09-27-2010, 04:16 PM
However, after he examines the bones more closely, he notices scraping in a very unusual place and lets the detective know that. Combined with what the detective is finding in his investigation, it fits, and it becomes obvious that the girl had an abortion (or an attempted abortion) before her death, and that could have caused her death.

There is a LOT of soft tissue between the pregnant uterus and any bone. (Remember that the vagina is between the urinary bladder and the rectum and all their respective attachments) If someone had an abortion in such a way to scrape bone anywhere in the pelvis that would have to be either sheer blinding incompetence or my first thought was malice. Also, to be that far off base would almost certainly result in death by infection (probably take her 3-5 days to die) or bleed to death in a matter of minutes to a day or two, depending upon what was damaged and how.

Hip-Hop-a-potamus
09-29-2010, 09:20 PM
There is a LOT of soft tissue between the pregnant uterus and any bone. (Remember that the vagina is between the urinary bladder and the rectum and all their respective attachments) If someone had an abortion in such a way to scrape bone anywhere in the pelvis that would have to be either sheer blinding incompetence or my first thought was malice. Also, to be that far off base would almost certainly result in death by infection (probably take her 3-5 days to die) or bleed to death in a matter of minutes to a day or two, depending upon what was damaged and how.

And GeorgeK gets the blue ribbon! I'll put it this way. It wasn't blinding incompetence, and it didn't start off to be malice, but it sure ended up that way. Sssshhhh....don't tell anybody. It's supposed to be a secret!

After much consulting of medical textbooks and websites of female anatomy and what might get hit, I came up with the premise, and you confirmed exactly what I wanted to happen (the dying in minutes part).