Recently one of my students asked me a question about some of the forensics behind Drowning Investigations. So, I thought I would make that the next post. This is just a summary, to act as an introduction to the idea of a drowning investigation, from a forensic perspective.
To begin, please know the lead expert in a case like this will likely be the local Medical Examiner or Coroner. This can be one of the most diverse investigations, involving experts in anthropology, botany, entomology, toxicology, pathology, etc. But the lead will most likely be the Medical Examiner or Coroner, and they will need all the information you can provide.
Overall in cases like this, it is the circumstances and context which are of extreme importance. Just because the body is in water, doesn't mean they drowned. And, even if drowning was the cause of death. Understanding the mechanism of death, to determine if it is an accidental death, suicide, or homicide can be a challenge; especially if you wish to prove it, beyond a reasonable doubt.
But here are a few of the questions to explore in the investigation
1. Was the person alive or deceased when they entered the water?
2. Was drowning the cause of death?
3. What caused the person, or body to enter the water?
And, here are a few of the things to look at when examining these questions, in addition to determining details for the circumstances leading up to the discovery:
1. Is there foam in the airway? - a whitish foam in the mouth, nose, etc. This may suggest drowning as a cause of death, but it can be present for other reasons too.
2. Amount of water in the lungs, and stomach? - if a person is deceased when they enter the water, it is less likely to find large amount of water or other debris from the water in the lungs or stomach?
3. Diatoms? - if there is water in the lungs and stomach, they may have diatoms present in their lungs, stomach, or bloodstream and tissues. These are single celled algae that exist in water, and may be compared to the water where the body was found. This can help to confirm location of the drowning, or determine if it was elsewhere. However, there is more to this, and this is where a forensic botanist may be a great resource!
4. Cadaveric Spasm? - This is an instantaneous rigor or stiffening that occurs at the time of death, and is not uncommon in drowning. The hands of the deceased may possess debris from the water, weeds, or other items and provide more circumstantial information.
5. Lividity? - Can indicate the position the body was in after death, as lividity set. Drowning victims can have a very characteristic lividity.
These are only a few of the things to explore, if you wish to know more about drowning investigations. And, these largely pertain to the body. But it will be extremely important for the investigation to be as thorough as it can be, which means you had better examine the scene the body was found in, to determine if any other traces were left behind. This is a challenging and arduous task, for which help is always required!
If you are unsure what a scene exam may look like ... imagine a grid beneath the water, and you job is to search it grid by grid, to the full extent of your abilities! Its a unique experience, and you never know what you may find!