It was the middle of summer. A bright, sunny day. The victim was found in her backyard. She was lying on a plastic chaise chair, wearing a swimsuit. Next to the chair was a free-standing fan that was plugged into an extension cord. The victim’s hand was resting on top of the fan. There were no signs of trauma or foul play. It looked like she could’ve died in her sleep. But everyone on scene agreed that the presence of the fan was alarming.
Could this have been an electrocution?
Hollywood has given us the wrong impression of electrocution deaths look like.
In most household electrocution deaths, the scene investigation is vital because often there are no signs of burns on the body. Occasionally, depending on the voltage, there might be a cherry-colored mark on the victim’s body, where they came into contact with electricity. But often, there’s nothing.
During this investigation, I had a new investigator, who was hired from another office, working with me. I gave her the paperwork and while she was collecting the: Who, What, When Where, Why’s, I began taking photos.
The first set of photographs I took were overall photos of the backyard. One photo from taken from each corner and side for a total of eight. In the digital age of photos, you can’t take too many pictures. Also, keep in mind death investigators are the eyes and ears of the pathologists who are up to their elbows in intestines back at the morgue.
After the overall photos were taken, I photographed the victim as I approached her (midrange photos) and then the closeup photos. I took an obscene number of photos showing her hand resting on the fan as well as the inside surface of her hand. No signs of visible injuries were present on her hand. After completing the preliminary exam of the victim, I continued taking photos, following the extension cord that the fan was plugged into. I followed the extension cord through a small hallway and into a mudroom and when I saw the outlet the cord was plugged into, I stopped. I turned off the flash and then continued taking pictures.
There was a nightlight plugged into the outlet above the extension cord. And the nightlight was on and fully functioning.
The pathologist absolutely needed to see that the nightlight was still on and glowing. This was really important to the investigation. Also, it left me asking several questions. Was the outlet a GFI outlet? If it was a GFI outlet, was it faulty?
These were all good questions to ask. But my area of expertise is limited when it comes to electricity.
While I can’t troubleshoot an outlet, what I can do is notify whoever else is living in the home that the outlet in question could be faulty and that they should avoid using the outlet and contact an electrician to come out.
Once we were back at the morgue, I contacted the pathologist who was assigned to this case and gave her a heads up that we had a possible electrocution death.
Different medical examiner/coroner offices assign different duties to their investigators. At some offices, the forensic technicians/autopsy technicians take postmortem fingerprints. At this office, that responsibility fell primarily to the investigator but on those days where the investigators were slammed with scene investigations, the technicians would take the fingerprints.
However, for this case, no one took fingerprints. While I didn’t see any marks on the hand that was resting on the fan, it was important that the pathologist be able to see the hand and fingers before any ink was applied.
As far as I remember, there was no sign of injury/burn mark on the hand or any of the fingers.
Cause of death: electrocution
Manner of death: accident.
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