Final Words: Reflections of a Forensic Pathologist

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Stairwell, Jelly Bucket, 2021

A crowd gathered outside as Joe watched through a grimy kitchen window. People huddled in groups of twos and threes facing a deserted apartment building. Joe scanned the area then checked the time on the microwave—7:00 a.m. Folks were getting ready to leave for work. He didn’t recognize most of them; he had moved to Syracuse only recently. Besides, night shifts in the warehouse prevented him from crossing paths with normal day jobbers. 

The cloudless sky formed shadows on the cemented yard. Joe stubbed out a cigarette in the foil ashtray and hurried to join the spectators. October air chilled his bare arms. He had forgotten a jacket in his haste.

This was how Joe described the scene to me later when I interviewed him.

The onlookers held their ground as Joe pushed through. He felt desperate to get to the front of the queue. Each person expectantly watched the dwelling, like paparazzi hoping to glimpse a celebrity. 

Graffitied plywood covered the first-floor windows. Broken glass panes decorated the second and third levels. Gutters dangled from eaves; limbs amputated before reaching the ground.

“Hey,” Joe said, waving at a police officer guarding the back door of the house of interest. Yellow crime-scene tape surrounded it for some 15 feet. The cop stared into the distance, hands crossed in front, at attention. A dog barked, insistent and deep.

Joe ran his right hand through his thinning blonde hair, then along the edges of his thick, graying mustache. Joe listened to the hum of conversation at this unexpected mid-week excitement.

“Found her this morning.”

“Bottom of the stairs, I heard.”

“A fall maybe?

“Who is she?”

“Betcha it was Nelly’s girl.”

“Must have been drugs.”

“You don’t know that.”

Joe’s pulse thumped in his ears, blood pressure rising. He had forgotten to take his pills last night. Maybe the night before, too. Dizzy with panic, he considered going back to his apartment for the medicine. He discarded the idea.

“Hey,” Joe said more loudly, motioning again to get the officer’s attention. “Excuse me, sir, what’s going on?” He aimed for a civil tone but ended up shouting over the buzz of the crowd. The cop maintained a rigid posture, like a statue. 

Joe tapped the shoulder of a tall, black man standing in front of him. Despite the cool temperature, Joe’s hands were sweating. Back muscles tensed at Joe’s touch. The thought that Joe might stain the man’s fine suit distracted him. The man rotated his head a few degrees in Joe’s direction.

“Sorry,” Joe said, “do you know what this is about? Can you see anything?”

The man turned fully toward Joe. They were about the same age, mid-forties. It was the only trait they shared. Towering over Joe’s diminutive frame, this person exuded confidence and power.

“Do I know you?” the man said. The aroma of spearmint wafted downward as he spoke. 

The man’s sunglasses mirrored Joe’s reflection—hair unwashed, cheeks shadowed, and body shivering. Joe hadn’t eaten, hadn’t slept, and had smoked four packs of cigarettes since Sunday. He’d missed work for two nights calling family, friends, and everyone from his contact list. No one knew where Lashana had gone. Fear stopped him from calling the police. Joe flushed red as he shook his head.

“I heard they found somebody in there,” Joe said. He gestured toward the scuffed door of the nearby, aging construction.

The two men stared at each other; eyes unwavering. Joe had been in this situation before—no connections, out of place, black versus white. Honesty worked best.

“I’ll be straight with you, man. It’s my wife,” Joe said, “I’m scared it’s her in there.”

The man removed his glasses. His voice gained a deeper timbre.

“They found a woman in there early this morning,” he said. “African American.” He pronounced each word distinctly. “Woman in her thirties.” He weighed his next statement. “Could it be her?”

Joe sank into himself with this description.

“Yeah,” he said slowly. “Yeah. Could be.” He blinked to erase the dread of his imaginings beyond the other side of the wall.

The man softened and took Joe’s elbow and led him forward, finding a space directly along the yellow tape. Others stepped back providing room for them, respecting the taller man.

“Officer,” the man said, “this guy might know something.” The cop didn’t acknowledge him. “He thinks it might be his wife.”

The deputy’s eyes flitted toward the pair, curious, then returned to neutral. 

After trying twice more to engage the policeman, the man turned to Joe.

“I’m sorry. He’s not going to do nothing. It’s not his job.” For a few moments, Joe and the man stood regarding the back of the clapboard house, paint peeling, weeds at the bottom seams. “He’s not going to stick his neck out. They never do. Not for us.”

The wind picked up, portending rain. Joe held out his hand to the man. 

“Thanks anyway,” Joe said.  

“I have to get to work,” the man said, returning the gesture. He placed his other hand on Joe’s shoulder. “Good luck, brother.”

Joe nodded and turned to face the thin blue line again.  

 “Hey, excuse me,” Joe said. Then getting vociferous, “Can you tell me who they found? Is that my wife in there? Is it her?” 

He continued to yell, getting hoarse with the effort.


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Description automatically generated with low confidence

Description automatically generated with low confidence

While Joe stood outside the house, I worked inside unaware of his shouting. I knelt down in a cramped stairwell, barely enough room for the lead detective, the dead body, and me. Darkness encircled us except for one tactical flashlight. Electrical power had long ago been cut off to this abandoned building. 

Mike, the detective, and I had worked together on other homicides. He wasn’t my first choice for a partner. Being just a few years from retirement, he disliked non-straightforward cases. The unknown tired him.

“Here, Doc,” he said, focusing the beam on the woman’s face.

She appeared my age, early forties but she could have been younger; a hard life and death age a person. She had a similar petite build but her jawline was strong, nose delicate, lips full. Curly black hair styled in a high fade graced her head: stunning, Vogue worthy. 

Trauma eroded some of her finer features. Eyes bulged with the lids drawn back. Tributaries of blood vessels dotted the sclerae. Her lower lip puffed out, crusted with dried blood. A tan smear stained her cheek from mouth to neck with an aroma of vomit. Bruises and scratches flecked the sides of her neck melding into brown skin. Her face was slightly wasted. Anorexia? Drug use? Postmortem change?  

Balancing on a step above the body, I shone my Maglite along the rest of her silhouette––supine on the bottom landing, the top of her head rested against the outside door. She was a naked figure except for white ankle-length socks that covered her feet. 

Her arms lay at her sides, hands resting beneath her thighs. Contusions bloomed on her thorax and shoulders and encircled her wrists. Legs were drawn up and out as if awaiting a gynecologist’s exam. One knee propped against a wall, the other dropped all the way to the floor. The pubic hair, shaved recently, showed uneven re-growth. Examining her pelvic region, I noted rips and bleeding in the vagina.

A rancid odor permeated the small space; used condoms strewn the floor. Thirteen, I counted, then re-counted the condoms, thirteen, unlucky. They were too desiccated to yield DNA from the night of her murder though we sent them to the lab anyway.

“Let’s roll her,” I said. My voice echoed in the shaft. “I need to see her back.” 

Mike and I moved her easily. Rigor mortis, a stiffening of the muscles after death had already come and gone.

Extensive abrasions covered her posterior, concentrated along the spine, lower ribs, and buttocks—friction with the hard surface beneath her. Beer caps, soda tops, edges of candy wrappers, and empty dime bags stuck to her skin. Mouse droppings and crusted dirt layered beneath her. Scarves of dust rested in the corners.

Experience told me she had been raped and strangled then abandoned, more than 36 hours ago by the look of it.

“We’ll need a full sexual assault kit,” I said. “Let’s start with the hands. Then run the fingerprints right away.” 

Mike grunted. “Can’t it wait until the morgue?”

“We need to get an ID on her as soon as we can,” I said, explaining my request to alleviate his reluctance.

“Well, I’ll have to get the evidence kit from the car.” He didn’t move.

This woman was a Jane Doe. The place unoccupied. The white socks her only clothing. No purse. No jewelry. Surgical scars and tattoos not visible. No obvious dental work. None of the usual hints to an identity.

The police had checked their local database for any adult black female reported missing in the past 72 hours in Central New York. I knew she hadn’t been here longer than that. The fingerprints would be crucial, if she had any on file.

With a huff, Mike acquiesced.

“Yeah, she’ll have something on file,” he said when he returned. “Another dead hooker.” 

His callousness irritated me. My jaw clenched. A rapping from the outside interrupted my response.

“Yeah?” Mike called out.

The officer on the other side replied, “Quite a gathering, sir.”

“How many?”

“Twenty. Twenty-five.”

Mike sighed. “We got to move this along, Doc.” 

“Then give me the fucking kit.”


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Description automatically generated with low confidence

Description automatically generated with low confidence

After an hour of photographing, collecting trace evidence, and labeling each container, we laid the woman into a body bag and sealed it closed. The next part of the examination would be done at the morgue. A long day awaited me; a homicide autopsy could take eight hours.  

The back door was just inches from where we were standing. If we took the woman out that way, the neighbors would see. By now, reporters were probably there too. Instead, transport services picked up the body bag, headed up the stairs and then back down to the main door at the front of the house, a more circuitous but less visible route. I left Mike to carry all the evidence we collected.

Going to my car, parked beyond the crowd, I heard a man shouting. The solo patrolman yelled in return. I moved closer to listen.

“Is it my wife? Is it her?” the man croaked. He paced in front of the bystanders who had given him a wide berth. The harried deputy strove to keep order. 

“I asked you to step back, sir,” the officer said as the man leaned into the crime scene tape.

“Damn it. What’s going on? Is it her? Is it Lashana?” 

Joe and my worlds intersected.


Description automatically generated with low confidence

Description automatically generated with low confidence

Description automatically generated with low confidence

I approached the policeman and read his nameplate. 

“Deputy Stanton,” I said. He flashed irritation before noticing the forensic badge I held toward him. “What’s going on here?”

“Not a problem, ma’am,” the officer said, color rising in his face. “This gentleman insists on going inside. Says his wife is in there. I told him this is a crime scene. Police are investigating. He won’t listen. I’m about to call for backup.” He had one hand on his radio. 

“I don’t think that’s necessary, Deputy,” I said. I turned to the man who had gone quiet during the conversation. “What is your name, sir?” 

“Joe,” he said, “Joe Warren.”  

“Officer, call Detective Faster and maybe we can sort this out.” 

The officer radioed Mike my request.

Extending my hand, I introduced myself to Joe.

He seemed confused by this civility after being ignored for so long. He grasped my hand in both of his. Strong, callused, and trembling as he shook mine. Taking in my white lab coat, he paled, aware of what my title might signify.

Mike emerged from around the corner at a hurried pace.

“Yeah, Doc?” he said, breathing hard. He had taken the same precaution in exiting the walk-up, using the two flights of stairs. Perspiration trickled down the sides of his face. My tone eased.

“This man might have some information for us, Detective,” I said, guiding Joe toward a neighboring structure, a rotting porch with trash piled in a corner, yet private. 

“Sir, can you show me some ID please,” Mike asked, retrieving a pen and notepad from his suit jacket. 

Joe patted his t-shirt and athletic pants before realizing there were no pockets.

“Wait a minute,” Joe said and ran back to his residence.

“What’s his deal?” Mike said to me.

“He thinks the woman in there might be his wife,” I said. Mike raised his eyebrows. 

Joe wheezed a little when he returned and showed his driver’s license to Mike. The investigator dutifully noted the information. 

Mike interviewed Joe, and I interjected from time to time. The detective’s style was to ask open-ended questions. Joe’s answers rambled, touching upon the distant past then skipping into the future. The only knowable present was his being here. His wife’s absence was impenetrable. Mike worked on getting a coherent statement. 

Joe detailed how Nelly, Lashana’s mother, struggled with diabetes and breast cancer. His father-in-law died three months ago somewhere in California. Joe got hung up on the name of the town––Barstow or Bellflower. His wife had two brothers; they weren’t close. He remembered a younger sister in North Carolina with her own problems and smoker’s lung.

He ran his hands over his shirt as if to find a packet of cigarettes. 

“We should quit anyway. I been telling her that,” Joe said. He lapsed to the recurrent, “Is it her? Is it my wife?”

“Information you give us will help sort this out,” I said, feeling sorrow for his anguished refrain.

He continued in a roundabout way. Lashana and Joe had been living in the Buffalo area since they married five years ago. They recently moved here, to her hometown, to help care for her mother. Joe was from Conawongo. I knew it to be a desperately poor town. He had never been to Syracuse until six months ago. 

“We were gonna go to the farmer’s market on Saturday,” Joe said. That was three days in the future. 

They were just settling in. She hadn’t found a job as quickly as Joe had. The couple was short on money. His minimum wage salary was not enough for rent, food, and a car. Her mom’s SSI barely supported one person. They helped the mother with medical expenses.

Rain drizzled as we huddled under the portico overhang. The crowd dissipated as if sensing the victim’s departure. Mike and I waited to hear something about recent days. Joe shuddered in his thin clothing.

“I’ve been worried about her,” he said. “She’s been going out, not saying where.” He shook his head. “I didn’t know what to do. She’d just up and get mad at me for no reason.” He thought it was the stress of her mother’s illness. He didn’t want to believe that she had slipped back into drugs, the familiar pulling her in like old sneakers sucked into fresh mud. 

My pager and Mike’s radio sounded at the same time. We excused ourselves and walked out of earshot. Mike scribbled a note. I read the message on my screen. They said the same thing—“Fingerprint identification is a match.”

The murdered woman was Lashana Warren, 38-years old, recent resident of Erie County, married to Joe Warren, no kids. The CODIS state-wide fingerprint system had connected the dead woman with an arrest report from eight years ago. I sagged with the official news. 

Mike had more data from her rap sheet. It revealed a turbulent decade in her twenties—cocaine and marijuana use/possession, and solicitation––a vulnerable woman on the edge of society. 

Joe had told us that his wife had turned her life around. He was well-acquainted with her past; he had one of his own. They both had been clean for years, throughout their marriage and more, but not today. The rapid drug test on Lashana’s nasal swab was positive for cocaine. 

As we returned, he looked expectantly at us. The bad news had to wait a few minutes.

“When did you last see Lashana, Mr. Warren?” Mike said. The hardest part for any next-of-kin, describing their final moment with the deceased.

Joe swallowed and his voice cracked.

“When she went out night before last,” he said. “No, wait. The night before that. What was that, Monday?”

“Today is Wednesday,” I said.

“Oh,” Joe said, “I’ve been looking for her for two nights. Sunday, then. Yeah, it was Sunday night. The last time I went to work. She went out for smokes. She likes Kools, not my Camels. Says they’re too harsh.” He spoke quickly.

“What time was that?” Mike asked, continuing to take notes.

“Maybe 9 or 10 o’clock,” Joe said. “That corner store is open to eleven. I had to head to work and she wasn’t back yet. Around midnight I called her but got no answer. When I came home the next morning, she wasn’t there. Something felt wrong. She never stays out all night. I thought maybe she slept over her mom’s, so I called Nelly and….” He let the end of the sentence trail off.

“Did she say anything else when she left?” Mike said.

Joe didn’t answer, lost in memories of that conversation. 

“I don’t know what all I said. Maybe I said, ‘Don’t bang the door’ or ‘I’m headed to the job soon’ or ‘Be careful.’ I’ve been thinking about this all the time.” His breath hitched, “Yeah, that sounds right. Be careful.” He nodded, inhaling deeply then coughing for several seconds. “Sorry about that. We both need to stop smoking.” Then tearfully, “Maybe I said that already.”

Joe pressed on. 

“I don’t think I said, ‘I love you.’ I didn’t say it. How awful is that? I didn’t say ‘I love you, baby.’ I didn’t say it,” Joe’s body shook. His eyes widened. “Why did she lie? Why? I would have helped her. I always did.” He began to sob. “I love you, baby. Why did you go?”

“Joe,” I said touching his arm, “do you know what happened?”

“No, I don’t, but people are saying all kinds of shit. They’re saying there’s a woman killed, maybe on drugs. Someone saw the hearse out front. You’re the medical examiner, right? That’s like a coroner, isn’t it? You only come out when they’re dead.” His eyes were swollen, pupils dilated with anxiety, nose running. He asked the questions he had been repeating for hours, “Is it her? Is it my wife?”

The skies wept around us.

“It is, Mr. Warren,” I said, “Your wife is dead.” His arm felt cold. Joe wobbled a step back. Mike stood close. 

“The fingerprints of the woman we found match Lashana Warren,” Mike said.

“I’m sorry for your loss,” I said, immediately hating the sound of my words, a worthless platitude as if someone had misplaced their car keys. Any further condolence became lost to his wails of misery. He had known yet didn’t want to believe; the nightmare realized. My inadequate apology caked my tongue to the roof of my mouth. 

“Are you sure it’s her?” he said.

Thoughts of my husband, my love, lying alone, deserted, unnamed, brought tears to my eyes. How would I go on? Could I go on? What if I never held him again? Had I said “I love you” this morning?

“It is her, Mr. Warren,” I said simply. 

He keened again as if hearing about her death for the first time. It bit into me.  

“How did she die? Was it the blow?” he asked, staccato words between breaths. He turned to the detective for an answer.

“That’s what we’re trying to find out,” Mike said. He shifted back and forth, looking down at his feet.

“There are a lot of things that need to be done before we have any answers,” I said. “I am going to do an autopsy and there will be specialized exams—x-rays, drug testing, lab work. This is an active investigation, so I won’t be able to give you all the details right away. Do you understand?”

“What do you mean by that? Didn’t she OD?” Joe asked.

Mike gave the smallest of nods for me to continue. Joe deserved something more. I couldn’t give him much.

“It’s more complicated than that,” I said.

“What are you talking about? Did she fall? She didn’t kill herself, did she? Did somebody do something to her?” With each question, Joe’s confusion ratcheted higher. The enormity of what I couldn’t say lodged in my throat.

“We have to do this methodically and carefully—no premature judgments. We want the truth. We have to do this right for Lashana,” I said.

He nodded but didn’t understand “But, please, tell me how she died. Was she killed?”

Did what he imagined even come close to the violence in the stairwell?

“We have to do everything in order. As soon as I can, I will tell you.” I offered the same explanation to Joe’s repeated questions. The grief-stricken became temporarily deaf.

“I’ve been trying to find her for two days and she was right here.” He stamped his foot. “What the hell? Why would she go here?” He stared at the scuffed door which bewildered him as much as whatever his wife had done. “What is this place? Some crack house?”

“We’re looking into that and the doctor here is going to take care of Lashana,” Mike said.

“You have to go with the police now to answer some questions,” I said, grateful to the detective for his newfound sensitivity. Alarm registered on Joe’s face.

“Do you think I did something to her? I didn’t do nothing. I kept her safe, away from all that crap.” Anger surfaced along with the guilt of failing to protect her. “I would never hurt her. How could I? You should be ashamed. I been out here yelling for hours.” He had described all of it to us. The agony of shouting into the void. “I didn’t know where she was.” With this last proclamation, Joe deflated—shoulders slumped, head bowed. Maybe he figured he should have known where she was after all.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said, though he was shaking his head back and forth as if he didn’t believe what he was saying, “I understand. You just want to know what happened.” He sniffed then added, “I do, too.”

“Let’s get you someplace warm,” Mike said. Lashana’s husband went willingly to the unmarked car and straightened as they walked.

He and Mike headed to the station and then the morgue. Joe wanted to make a visual identification of his wife. We already had a scientific ID. After looking for days and waiting outside the building for hours, maybe he needed to see Lashana in the flesh to make the death real. 

He underwent routine questioning. As the significant other and the last person known to see the victim alive, he was a usual suspect. It wasn’t my job to solve the whodunit. Yet I knew he hadn’t killed her—this heinous act of strangulation and rape. His palpable sorrow exonerated him in my mind. Quickly the police came to the same conclusion after their official interview. 


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Description automatically generated with low confidence

Description automatically generated with low confidence

After leaving the scene, I started my car. On the radio, a newscaster announced, “The body of a woman was found early this morning in the city in an abandoned building known for illegal drug activity. The site has also been used for prostitution. She died from an apparent drug overdose.” 

No official conclusion had been released from my office. Did the reporter get his information from the police or the neighborhood gawkers? Lashana was brutally murdered and all he had to say was that she’s a druggie and a whore? That should have been a harbinger of the disappointment that was to come at the trial. 

Ultimately, a perpetrator was arrested, the last john to have been with her. He admitted to seeing Lashana in the same position as we had seen her in the stairwell. He described her body exactly as he had left her, which was exactly as we found her. Things got rough during sex; he put his hands around her throat. She passed out. He walked away.

At the trial, I testified that Lashana was killed by manual strangulation—someone fatally choked her. The drugs in her blood were at low levels, not a cause of her demise. No viable DNA was recovered from her body. Any sperm in the condoms had degraded. She had spent nearly three days in the stairwell, which was enough time for biologic material to decay.

The jury’s verdict was Not Guilty. There were no fibers, blood, or fingerprints on the body to connect him to the scene despite his confession. The lack of semen was more important to the jurors than the defendant’s admission that he had killed her. 

In forensic pathology, we call this the “CSI Effect”—the expectation that there will be physical evidence present each and every time a crime is committed. To a group of one’s peers charged with assessing guilt or innocence, it matters more than witness statements, motive, means, opportunity, even confessions. But on that Wednesday, these court events were months into the future. I hadn’t even signed the death certificate yet.


Description automatically generated with low confidence

Description automatically generated with low confidence

Description automatically generated with low confidence

My last glimpse of Joe was of him sitting in the backseat of the police cruiser, head on his knees. His wife had died just across from where they lived; yards from the spot where he had been worrying for two days and nights. It would be many weeks before he learned the depressing particulars and still more before justice completely slipped away.  

Thunder rumbled. I flipped on the windshield wipers and headlights. The air from the defroster was cold. I raised the temperature. My stomach growled but I was not hungry. My day had started early and would go into the evening. I flipped on the voice recorder and described my findings from the scene. 

Dead Lashana alternated in my mind with a gauzy imagining of her alive. Her neck with its bloody marks of pain contrasted with a tender one bent toward Joe. Naked and clothed, darkness and light, suffering and comfort. The images flicked on and off in rhythm with the wipers.

I stopped the dictation and drove to the office.

Thwack, thwack, thwack. One, one thousand, two, one thousand, three, one thousand. I counted to 15 with the beating of the wiper blades. The time it might take until she passed out. Many more minutes to deprive the brain of oxygen and snuff out her life. Glancing at the clock, I waited for time to advance five minutes. Had her last thought been of Joe?

Pulling my car into the parking lot of the Forensic Science Center, I stared out the front window. It was raining cats and dogs. The sound of the wipers beat loud and steady. Water pooled at the edge of the windshield, pushed to the side like Lashana’s naked form. It drained and reshaped with each swipe of the rubber arm. The dead woman’s image held firm: head against the door, arms to the side, legs splayed, and wearing only socks.

A question gathered from the wet hallucination; one that congealed over the days, weeks and months to come. 

Never answered. Not satisfied. Forever lost. 

Thwomp. Thwomp. Thwomp. Thwomp.

Where. Were. Her. Clothes?

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