Final Words: Reflections of a Forensic Pathologist


The Boy

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The Boy, Tortoise and Finch 2017

I stare at the artwork of bright yellow, red, and blue that my children created with finger paint. This picture of their hands hangs on the wall of my office. It is an image of playfulness and youth. Meditatively rocking in my leather swivel chair, I savor the steam from a freshly brewed cup of chamomile tea, Peter Rabbit’s favorite. This reminds me of tea parties, cinnamon toast, and dozens of love-worn stuffed animals around the kitchen table with my three boys. The snow falls thickly and it is pitch black outside though barely 5:00 PM. Yet there is a lot of work to do before calling it a day. Feeling pensive, I continue to gaze at the painting.

The simple, colorful images transform into another scene. My pulse quickens and my breath speeds up with the remembering. It is no longer snowing; the weather is warm, stifling even, in my blue uniform jumpsuit. In front of me, is a small two bedroom ranch house, cream shingles with brown trim. The walkway is lined with yellow tape that reads “Crime Scene, Do Not Enter.” Police dutifully turn and nod at me as I pass. The setting is muted although there are at least ten people about. Everyone senses the tragedy that permeates the air and maintains a respectful silence.

Entering the house, I briskly walk up the few stairs to a child’s bedroom. The only sound is the swooshing of the plastic booties on my feet.

“Morning, ma’am,” a detective says in a hushed tone as he pushes open the door. It is an odd moment, and I imagine myself to be a dancehall girl entering an old western saloon. This distracting image vanishes quickly.

There are tiny, bloody handprints forming a crooked line from the floor to the wall to the door. Some are right sided, some left, with many having distinct details, strong enough to make a fingerprint identification. A few of the twenty or so marks are less defined and smeared. The individual imprints are unevenly spaced yet determinedly making a path towards the bedroom exit.

The detective enters the room and closes the door for me to take a look at the other side, where there is more staining on its lower half. The brass knob is discolored crimson as slippery, attempts were made to turn it.

My throat catches and I blow deeply out of my nose in a forceful exhale.

“Need anything, Doc?” the detective asks quietly.

“No,” I say, “but tell the investigator, we’ll be ready for photos in a minute, thanks.” As the county medical examiner, this case is under my jurisdiction.

In the middle of the wooden floor, between the twin bed and the door, lies a small blond child. He’s three years old with a thin build and a Dutch-boy haircut making him a doppelgänger of my middle son at that age. The little boy is on his stomach, arms outstretched, as if he got tired while playing with the toys scattered all about him. There are action figures, wood puzzles, and foam building blocks. Except for the sanguineous liquid pooling around his head, the toddler could be napping. His skin is pale, white but his palms and Superman pajamas are bloody.

My gloved hands carefully turn his body over to examine the source of the bleeding, which are large wounds on his neck. Holding his head with my left hand, and a ruler in my right, I measure the length of the cuts. A serrated knife has been drawn against his neck with such tension it has created little hatch marks from its edge along the adjacent skin. There are four long incisions that start near the ear and continue to the Adam’s apple. One is deep and has sliced into the jugular vein.

Pausing to make notes about the size and shape of the injuries, I explain to the detective what kind of weapon the assailant used, showing him the unique pattern. He excuses himself to inform the CSI about this new information.

I try to imagine the last moments of this boy’s life. He would be confused about the sudden pain, touching his neck with his hands. Inspecting his fingers reveals there is a small slice at the tip of the right index where he must have tried to push the blade away.

Gently lifting the pajama shirt to get a closer look at his chest and arms, I see bruises on the tops of the shoulders and biceps where he was forcibly held down. The distinguishing circles made by adult man-sized digits are visible. They will become more distinct with time, aiding the investigation. Brushing the hair away from his forehead, a red swelling is conspicuous. It could be from a direct hit to his face or the fall at the time of fatal collapse.

His airway is uninjured so he was probably able to scream. The abstract audio echoes in my mind. I envision the boy’s terror as he bled slowly from the nick in his jugular vein. Probing gingerly, I observe that the carotid artery is spared. If it had been pierced, the resulting blood loss would have caused unconsciousness in seconds. Instead, the slowly bleeding vessel provided the red ink for the trail of handprints.

If he had intended to escape to find his mom, it was futile anyway. She lies dead in the adjoining hallway, her head crushed by a nearby ornamental rock. This stone is the weapon that was wielded by the same murderer. Splayed on the floor, face down with arms outstretched toward her son’s bedroom door, she appears, even in death, to exhibit a mother’s instinct to save her child.

Blood soaks her long, brown hair and covers the wounds in the skull just below. Large clots form a halo around her head indicating that she has been dead longer than her son. I mentally arrange the timeline. The boy most likely heard the fighting between his mom and the killer. Yet she might not have known his torment. How many blows did it take to silence her? Did he gag her? Did she claw at him? These questions will have to wait until the bodies are transported to the morgue where surgical lights and dissecting tools can help to answer them.

Parent and child are separated physically by the bedroom door but connected more tangibly by their frantic journey to reach one another.

“Hey, Doc,” the detective says as he returns, “we found him. Caught him on surveillance tape. He bought a pack of smokes at the convenience store, a mile from here. Just a matter of time, now.”

I reflect on the police dragnet underway, that began even before the murders. The cops will get their man; they knew all along who the killer is. Neighbors phoned 911 when they heard a loud argument and screaming. The person responsible for this gruesome affair is the estranged husband of the murdered woman, the biologic father of the murdered boy. Another tragic ending to a failed order of protection.

Later that same night, somber and withdrawn, I enter my house to shouts of “Mommy’s home!” Feet thunder toward me and arms find purchase around my knees, waist, and neck, as my three young sons welcome me back to my world. Tears flow freely now, unrestrained by the confines of professionalism. They spill onto my boys’ hair and faces, embraces returned. Living childhood surrounds me with youthful bodies undamaged by physical rage and brutality. We share the joy of endless hugs and kisses.

There is a knock on my office door interrupting this journey into the past.

My secretary is saying, “Dr. J, we’re leaving now. Don’t forget to lock up.”

“Sure thing,” I call out, though the words stick slightly. My throat is dry and I reach for my cup of lukewarm tea to quench the thirst rising within me. To leave with my co-workers would be a welcomed relief. Yet a few more papers need to be signed to take care of the business side of death.

The handprints in the picture are now primary colors again. My pulse and breathing have returned to normal. I concentrate on the finishing paragraphs of the reports of the day.

Tonight I will return to the beauty and simplicity of my home, my sons, my husband, and my mom, comforted by intimacy and love. The panic and sadness of the slain family, has faded into the background, but is not forgotten. My children’s painting forms a window into death’s pain, reminding me to retain those instances of horror. These memories honor the young boy and his mother. I speak for the dead and it is my job to bear witness and to remember.

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