Thursday, July 2, 2015

What I Did This Summer: Forensics Edition

by Brodie Butler, Biology/Humanities major at Azusa Pacific University

“…I was made to do this.” 

That’s what I tried to convince myself as I was slumped over in the library at ungodly hours of the night or fumbling to complete a titration in chemistry lab. I have known since I was a junior in high school that I wanted to become a forensic pathologist. However, there have always been certain doubts lingering in the back of my mind. Am I really cut out for this? Do I even have what it takes to get into medical school? 

Having the opportunity to do a short internship with Dr. Judy Melinek, M.D. reaffirmed my passion for this fascinating field of study. In addition to giving me the courage and confidence to tackle any obstacle I may face during my journey to becoming a forensic pathologist, she gifted me with an invaluable array of knowledge extending from correct autopsy procedure to effective expert witness testimony. These “bullets” of knowledge are as followed: 

The knowledge I gained from my experience with Dr. Judy Melinek, M.D. includes, but is not limited to, these topics. 


Edema is another odd sounding medical term for intracellular swelling due to direct cell injury. Under a microscope, cerebral edema somewhat resembles Swiss cheese. There are distinct spaces surrounding the nuclei resulting from edematous fluid replacing brain tissue. As the brain expands in the limited space exhibited by the skull, it pushes down on the circulatory and respiratory centers of the brain stem leading to brain death. 

Expert vs. Fact Witness Testimony.

Any first year law student or eager aspiring forensic pathologist should know the difference between these two distinct types of witnesses.

An expert witness is a qualified professional who utilizes their experience and training to offer an opinion on the matter being discussed. Unique to a fact witness, they are at liberty to rely on hearsay ie. police reports and medical records. 

A fact witness, by definition, is a individual who testifies to things they have personally observed or witnessed. They cannot offer any form of opinion or rely on hearsay. 

If a forensic pathologist were compelled to testify as a fact witness and asked, “Were any bullets recovered from the body cavity of John Doe?”, her only lawful response would be, “Your Honor, an answer to that question requires an expert opinion that I am not at liberty to offer as a fact witness.” 

Her response is justified because having the ability to recognize something as a bullet and not just merely a scrap of metal requires experience and training. Therefore, simply stating that something is a bullet is a matter of opinion. 

For her to offer a worthwhile response to the attorney’s question, the Judge must proceed to order the attorney to qualify her as an expert witness. This would require a review of her curriculum vitae (CV) and an explantation from the Judge as to why she is qualified to give an opinion. 

Gun Shot Wounds n’ Stuff. 

Tracking bullet trajectories during an autopsy can be considered an art form. 

It begins with marking the gun shot wounds (GSWs) with a Sharpie pen and giving each wound a corresponding letter for identification purposes.  On a sheet of paper (typically the back of the body diagram) these letters (A, B, C, etc.) are accompanied with an appropriate description of the locations in which the wounds are found. 

The presence of exit wounds are noted and metallic probes are used to locate the bullet’s point of lodgment (POL) in wounds that lack an exit wound (penetrating wounds). All bullets must be recovered as they may serve as evidence in trial at a later date. If a gun shot wound has an entrance and an exit wound (perforating wound), the sequence of the structures the bullet passes through must be identified. 

It is essentially like a puzzle that consists of matching entrance wounds to either a point of lodgment (POL) or an exit wound. If you get over its morbid nature, it’s quite fun. 

Advice to other aspiring forensic pathologists. 
Ask yourself… “Is this really something I’m passionate about?”
Be proactive and persistent. 
If you're not having fun, you're not doing it right.