Unattended Death

I hope this post finds you well and enduring the continued difficulties of pandemic with good health, grace, and hope for the future.

Installation #2 in the Northern Michigan University collection of Nutshells was completed during this trying time, entitled Unattended Death. It made its debut in a senior level Advanced Criminal Investigations class and was received warmly.

Some differences with this scene involved the accompanying documentation. For the MacDonald House, the gathered documentation was picked through and presented to the class for specific elements: blood spatter charts, reports on blood typing, trace evidence reports were presented as information in lecture. This Nutshell is presented this way due to the overwhelming amount of documentation available. It would take an entire semester to present all the information as it amounts to thousands of pages and images.

Unattended Death is not a recreation of a single scene. The details for the scene were pieced together from many reports retrieved from a variety of sources. The “story” of the scene was then crafted with an idea of presentation. The class is split into small groups of investigators and they are presented with the scene and the report of the initial responding officer. In that report are the cues for the decisions the investigators have to make. Different decisions will send the investigation in different directions. The number of directions is controlled to maintain focus, but the groups decide on what details to follow up on. Not all directions lead to more information. Red herrings exist in the real world.

The documentation includes interviews with principle characters, evidence secured from sources and the scene, and the Medical Examiner’s Report. The ME’s report includes a detailed autopsy report. As I’m not a pathologist, I’m pretty proud of the work I did there! The details were drawn from a variety of autopsy reports from around the country. As the scene I crafted is a fiction, the details had to be created for the scene. This required a fairly lengthy research into the mechanism of death and how different factors impact that mechanism. For instance, there is evidence in the scene and on the corpse of the decedent that intravenous drug use was fairly regular. The autopsy would then have to include such details as slow digestive process and the resulting filling of the large colon with fecal matter. A heroin user’s system slows down and constipation is normal.

Some notes on the construction of Unattended Death: I learned quite a bit from the tour of the Glessner Lee collection at the Maryland Medical Examiner’s Office. Wall construction is much better in this scene than in the MacDonald house. The view from the windows was constructed with much care to help the investigators judge the socio-economic status of the decedent. The windows look out into an alley filled with garbage bags, a rat, and a No Loitering sign.

The MacDonald House is still being used. Its audience this semester was a sophomore level Criminal Investigations class and it still proves to be a popular lesson. The fact that it is a real crime and is presented with actual scene photographs to go along with the collection of full-size pieces of recreated evidence gives the participants a hands-on experience would be impossible to duplicate without visiting an actual crime scene.

The research for installment #3 has begun and the drawings for construction are due to start in a matter of days. It will be interesting, to be sure!

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