Determining Time of Death: Separating Science from Pseudoscience

One of the most common questions I’m asked by family members is “do you know when they died?” If death occurs in the hospital, or is witnessed, the time of death isn’t controversial. It’s common though in forensics that people may not be found for hours, days, weeks, or more. Forensics television shows usually depict an investigator measuring body temperature at the scene, and then confidently declaring they’ve been dead for 44 hours. Unfortunately, there aren’t any existing methods that actually give that level of precision – but there is a way we can systematically approach the question.

When determining time of death (TOD), it’s most important to keep in mind that it will be an estimate. The estimate starts with the “window of death” – the time between when the decedent was last known alive and when their body was found. The smaller this window, the greater accuracy is possible.

Once the window is known, one can assess postmortem changes of the body. Livor mortis is the gravity-dependent settling of blood within vessels, which can appear as soon as twenty minutes after death. Sparing of lividity will be present in areas of pressure, such as parts of the body pressed against the floor or with tight clothing. Livor is initially blanchable, but after 8 to 12 hours blood extravasates from vessels and it becomes “fixed”. Clearly though, this only allows one to differentiate between ‘less than’ or ‘greater than’ 8 to 12 hours.

Rigor mortis (stiffening of the body after death) occurs because of postmortem ATP depletion. Muscle fibers require a supply of ATP to both contract and relax – once ATP levels are sufficiently low, muscle will remain contracted until the fibers are broken down by decompositional changes. Generally speaking, rigor starts to develop within an hour of death, peaks from 12 to 24 hours, and dissipates by 36 hours. However, these are average intervals. The onset of rigor is hastened by vigorous physical activity, seizures, electrocution, or increased body temperature, which preemptively deplete ATP. Rigor is also harder to detect in people with low muscle mass (e.g. infants), and can’t be assessed in frozen bodies with those with extensive thermal damage.

Cooling of the body after death, known as algor mortis, is similarly prone to interfering elements. One can find many formulas for estimating the time of death based on the temperature of the body – unfortunately, none of them are particularly useful because of the assumptions that must be made. Change in temperature after death is affected by numerous variables, including body habitus, clothing, wind, actual body temperature at the time of death (not many people are constantly at 98.6℉), sepsis, terminal seizures, and many others. If the environment is warmer than the body, the temperature can even increase after death.

I’ll briefly mention vitreous potassium measurement, which is probably the most recently discovered (and debunked) “holy grail” of time of death. Similar to algor and rigor mortis, vitreous potassium does a reasonably decent job predicting time of death in a controlled experiment – but in this line of work, people don’t tend to die in controlled environments.

At the end of the day, time of death is best estimated by thorough scene investigation, correlated with the evidence the body provides. Newspapers or mail not retrieved from the mailbox, expiration dates on perishable groceries, last refills of prescriptions, and unreturned text messages or phone calls can all narrow down the window of death.

As stated earlier, the longer the interval between death and discovery of the body, the more difficult time of death determination becomes. In advanced decomposition, there is no rigor, livor, or algor remaining to assess (there may even be scant residual soft tissue). In one such situation, despite months of a potential “window of death”, dates on unopened bills and crossed-off calendar dates helped us place the time of death within one or two days. It’s not as flashy as multivariate equations for temperature or potassium levels, but it’s far more accurate and scientifically defensible.

Image 1. The quilting pattern of this decedent’s mattress is visible in the livor mortis on his back.
Image 2. This decedent’s right arm is defying gravity due to rigor – he was initially face down, and his arm musculature became temporarily fixed in this position. Rigor can be forcibly broken if needed, but will also break down as decomposition proceeds.

-Alison Krywanczyk, MD, FASCP, is currently a Deputy Medical Examiner at the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office.

Dying in a Winter Wonderland: Staying Safe as the Temperature Drops

A 40 year old man was found deceased in a parking garage in a Midwest city. It was late October and had rained the previous evening. He was identified by his sister who was a tenant in the adjacent apartment building. Unknown to her, he had recently been discharged from the hospital after a one-week psychiatric admission. His sister stated he was homeless and would occasionally sleep in the parking garage for shelter.

At the scene the decedent was prone on the ground, clad only in a pair of boxers. His water-soaked shoes, socks, sweatpants, and shirt were strewn about him. Autopsy revealed an atraumatic, thin adult man. Prominent pink discoloration was noted over the hips and knees. Internal examination showed only patchy black-brown discoloration of the gastric mucosa and pale kidneys. Histology was remarkable for subnuclear vacuolization of the renal tubular epithelium. The cause of death was certified as environmental hypothermia, and the manner of death accidental.

Hypothermia is defined as a core body temperature below 95℉ (35℃) and can result from endogenous illnesses like hypothyroidism or sepsis. The most common cause, though, is exposure to cold environments. On exposure, the hypothalamus initiates shivering and increases cellular metabolism to produce heat. Another crucial survival response is vasoconstriction, particularly of vessels in skin and skeletal muscle. If the overall loss of heat overtakes the body’s ability to produce or retain heat, hypothermia will result.

Developing hypothermia doesn’t require frigid weather – in dry air, temperatures of 50℉ can still result in hypothermia. Wind removes warmed air surrounding the body, and water conducts heat three times faster than air; therefore, with either of these factors present, people can develop hypothermia at even warmer temperatures,

The autopsy findings of hypothermia are not specific. External examination may show bright pink discoloration of the skin over joints (“frost erythema”). There may be black-brown spots on the gastric mucosa, (“Wischnewsky spots”), thought to result from terminal vasodilation of submucosal vessels. The kidneys may be pale with microscopic subnuclear vacuolization of the tubular epithelium (the “Armanni-Ebstein” lesion). Acute hemorrhagic pancreatitis has also been described. However, these findings require a period of survival to develop—many cases, particularly if the decedent succumbs quickly, show no findings at all. The diagnosis of hypothermia therefore relies heavily on scene investigation. “Paradoxical undressing” (demonstrated in this case), refers to the phenomenon of a terminally hypothermic person taking off their clothes. This is caused by a feeling of warmth resulting from failure of vasoconstriction in the skin, and contributed by altered mentation.

Those at greatest risk are people spending extended time outdoors, including the homeless and outdoor recreationalists. The elderly and very young have a lower ability to centrally regulate body temperature. Children’s increased body surface area also leads to more rapid heat loss. People who are intoxicated with alcohol or drugs may not sense the cold or lack judgment to seek shelter. Alcohol also acts as a vasodilator, impairing vasoconstrictive adaptation to cold.

As the weather cools down, be mindful of how easily hypothermia can develop. Temperatures can be above freezing, yet those who are vulnerable are still at risk of hypothermia. Prepare yourself well for any snowy excursions, and keep an eye on those in your community who may not be able to seek shelter.

Stomach mucosa showing spots of black or dark brown discoloration
known as Wischnewsky spots. These are not specific to hypothermia and may just be an indicator of physiologic stress.
Bright pink discoloration over the knees, or “frost erythema”.
Pallor of the renal cortices corresponds to the microscopic “Armanni-Ebstein” lesion. This isn’t specific to hypothermia and can be seen in ketoacidosis from any cause.

-Alison Krywanczyk, MD, FASCP, is currently a Deputy Medical Examiner at the Cuyahoga County Medical Examiner’s Office.