Whilst the majority of people know the date when they were born, neither of them can point out exactly the time when they will pass away, even if there is a certainty that it will happen. It is for the coroners to shed light upon this matter when death occurs (Article 2 of Law no. 104/2003, Article 185, Paragraph 8 of Law no. 135/2010), and that is by excluding the possible signs of life and recognizing the first stages of death through examination of the corpse. Although the curiosity of the deceased will not be satisfied, the results remain of great interest in several fields, such as criminal and civil law.
This article is the first part of a trilogy that aims to cover the three main post-mortem stages - Algor Mortis, Rigor Mortis and Livor Mortis - in the struggle to estimate the time of death as accurately as possible when it is not witnessed.
The current subject will provide an overview of Algor Mortis (Latin: algor – chill/coldness, mortis – of death) - the cooling of the body as a process that follows death.
The topic will be divided into the specific changes occurring after death, how the stage evolves or appears in distinct kinds of deaths, its applicability and limits in precisely estimating when the person died and other additions that weigh down in the process.
Life is the absence of death or death is cessation of life. Since both ‘life’ and ‘death’ are only defined by their antagonistic relationship with one another, there is a reciprocal controversy in settling over a precise clarification. At least one thing it can be agreed upon: both are measured by time.
The Romanian medico-legal provisions, enclosed in the Law no. 104/2003 and its Methodological Rules of Application (hereinafter M.R.A.), fails in delivering a term definition and relies on the fact that showing the meaning of others, such as human corpses (Article 1, Paragraph (1) Law no. 104/2003) or what is most relevant in order to ascertain the death of a person (Article 2, Paragraph (1) M.R.A.), would suffice. And indeed it does.
Right below, Paragraph (2) (Law no. 104/2003), stresses out that a human will be considered dead by referring solely to the cerebral death as relevant after the check-up.
This medical diagnosis traditionally used the triangle-shaped functions – brain, heart and lungs – advanced by Bichat’s death criteria: ‘the failure of the body as an integrated system associated with the irreversible loss of circulation, respiration and innervation’ (Pounder, D., 2018, p. 21), which we still find incorporated in the human corpse definition. Due to the constant development of medical technology, the concept of death has been renewed and nowadays, it is narrowed down to a single point of no return, meaning ‘the complete and irreversible stoppage of vital brain stem functions’ (Pounder, D., 2018, p.21). The way Article 2 from the M.R.A. repeats the cessation of any brain or cardiac activity, with no possibility of restoring them for the deceased, strengthens the idea that death means absence of the functions needed when alive. Moreover, the coroner is under obligation to confirm the death is real, beyond any doubt, based on the recognition of the visible signs appearing shortly afterwards (Article 45, Paragraph (2) and (3), Annex of the Order no. 1.134/C/2000).
This will reflect in the legal repercussions following the time of death, amongst which we mention the autopsy and issue of the death certificate (Article 3, Paragraph (4) M.R.A.), followed by disposal of the body by burial, cremation and so on.
Algor Mortis main features
Algor Mortis, alongside Rigor and Livor Mortis, is a sign that appears within the first 24 hours after death (Pounder, D., 2018, p. 27), and for it to be considered a proof is important to be exploited and assessed as diligently as possible. Needless to say, the more time has elapsed between the time of death and the acknowledgement of Algor Mortis, the less reliable this method will be in providing an answer.
In opposition to the remaining two stages, Algor Mortis is considered to be the most useful single indicator in the post-mortem interval during the first day after death. (Pounder, D., 2018, p. 27) In the following paragraphs we will submit this statement to a challenge and prove how accurate it is.
Algor Mortis stands for the gradually cooling off of the body until reaching equilibrium with the ambient environment, whether this is the ground, the water or an indoor location (Ordoñez, M.A.H., p. 66) and from here conclusions over the method’s range of applicability can be easily drawn.
In terms of body’s decline until matching the surrounding temperature, common sense has it, a body will register a distinctive evolution if it is found in Pskov, Russia at -22° C, in comparison to one found in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates at +35°C. As stated (Pounder, D., 2018, p. 27), thus the use of this method is only possible in cool and temperate climates, because in tropical regions there may be a minimal fall in body temperature post-mortem, and in some extreme climates, such as desert regions, the body temperature may even rise after death.
Estimating the time of death
Following Newton’s cooling rate rule as adapted for estimating the time of death (Swift, B., pp.190-191; Vergara López C, p. 11), I will showcase a few dummy applications of Algor Mortis as a measurement tool in calculating the time of death.
According to Algor Mortis table reference for bodies submerged under water (Vergara López C, p. 6), for the first twelve hours, the body’s temperature drop is of 1.6° Celsius per hour, and after the first twelve hours, the loss is of 0.8° C per hour.
The difference in degrees between a corpse that has been found after twelve hours or under twelve hours since its death is that of a specific temperature loss of 19.2° C registered after twelve hours. This stands for a starting point to relate to when estimating the time the person passed away. Any higher temperature drop will subsequently lead to the suspicion of a death occurred at least twelve hours earlier.
Adding the normal body temperature of 37°C, a formula takes shape. The post-mortem interval would equal the normal body temperature minus the internal temperature of the cadaver when found, and the result will be divided according to the rate of temperature fall per hour (PMI = 37°C – unknown number of degrees C (temperature of cadaver) ÷ rate of temperature fall per hour).
As an example, let us suppose a body was found underwater and when brought to surface had a temperature of 29°C.
The difference of 8° C lost will be divided using the 1.6° C rate drop since the degrees lost show us that the death has happened recently, in less than twelve hours ago. The calculation should approximate five hours’ time since death.
Let us suppose another body was found in the same conditions and had a temperature of 13°C.
First and foremost, in this advanced stage of Algor Mortis easily recognizable due to the significant temperature drop, it is obvious that the body has been dead for more than twelve hours. We prove this as we find out the difference between the normal body temperature and the one measured last. The result is 24°C. Because the degrees lost are greater than 19.2°C we can assume that the human died more than twelve hours ago and now it is time to find out in how much time the body has lost the remaining 4.8°C degrees. Since the loss per hour after the first twelve hours is of 0.8°C, in this case, the degrees were lost in around six hours’ time. Bringing both results together would mean a total of eighteen hours period since the death of the second body.
The method’s constructive criticism
As the formula unfolds, its failure in heading towards a valid result can be clearly spotted. The margins of error root from not taking into account, not few, but many of the overall circumstances that would be relevant in the process of setting the timeline targeted for measurement.
From the first glance it is obvious that there is no reference concerning the body’s features. Logic assures us that a body of medium height will cool faster than another of above-average height and some authors (Mackowiak, P. A., Wasswerman, S. S., pp. 1578-1580) point out that even gender implies a different cooling curve.
Moving on, a naked body is more exposed to the surrounding temperature as opposed to a body covered in several layers of clothing. Also, the location where it is found contributes at some level in measuring the time passed since the person’s last breath. An unheated basement in comparison with a bedroom or a balcony in opposition to a sauna are only some of the examples available out there.
A criminal may know that the processes following death cannot be reversed, yet instead they can be delayed, hastened or prolonged, creating a double edged sword effect in the Algor Mortis evolution. Consequently, precisely the indicators for estimating the time of death will be turned against their purpose and raise extended issues, as in recognizing the victim by slowing down the process of identification (Elgoghail M., 2016). Leaving the corpse in open field during the winter months, submerged in extreme cold water or even hiding the body in a refrigerator are only some of the factors that can disturb the onset of Algor Mortis and compromise fragile evidence.
For an indoor crime hypothesis, the offender may leave the dead body lying on the floor, locked in a room in which he previously set the thermostat to maintain the temperature at 30°C, therefore causing an abnormality in the evolution of the cooling stage which is prone to create confusion.
Secondly, the normal core body temperature of 37°C may suffer alterations and not always due to illness. On a daily basis, people sunbathe, run or catch a cold; therefore; they may have a temporarily normal risen temperature. If death comes as a consequence of someone reaching a 40°C fever due to an infection, the entire algorithm is changed.
Thirdly, the rate temperature drop per hour is not as constant as seen in the formula. Even adapted to the environmental degrees, chances are they will most likely change throughout the day/night. If a body is left outside, sun and rain will leave its natural traces on it, influencing its decline in a detrimental way.
To sum-up, I believe that all these factors, neglected in the Algor Mortis theory, must be carefully investigated and incorporated in a tailored approach. Primarily, for using them in estimating the occurrence of death, but also for achieving a step further against the offender who may have taken advantage of them.
This conclusion has a practical side that involves adapting all the knowledge acquired so far to each case examined individually. A study (Gutevska V., Stankov A., Pavlovski A., Jakovski G.I., Janeska,Z., Poposka, B., 2016) has indicated that adding all the values impacting the algorithm used to estimate the time of death and following all the procedures in examining the post-mortem stages would most likely lead to a viable result. Compared with other data gathered in the case, the time of death will become less ambiguous.
In spite of all accuracy flaws in estimating the time of death, Algor Mortis remains of great value in recognizing a real death from an apparent one. Since it is a stage that shows off post-mortem, it does not allow claiming a human being has died when in fact someone simply fainted or is in a temporarily unresponsive condition.
Moreover, in recent deaths, Algor Mortis measurement can give a slight, yet strong enough hint, to reduce or enlarge the sphere of suspects in a homicide case scenario or help presume the perpetrator is not far away from the location where the body was found. Similar, if a new born baby is discovered dead, hidden somewhere as if a mother would have committed infanticide, perhaps surpassing this assumption and examining further the location would lead to the woman’s body being discovered a few meters away. Wouldn’t that shift the search towards another possible murderer?
From a criminal perspective, estimating the time of death is tightly attached to the presumption of innocence, providing legal issues of alibi. A mere example could be of an accused that proves being in a different place when the crime occurred, showcasing his innocence is implicit.
Furthermore, this can relate to the deceased as well. A dead man can neither be held accountable, nor punished for breaking the law during his lifespan.
Through the lens of the Civil Law no. 287/2009, the death of a person is important in matters of legacy. A person’s heritage will not be divided without their death confirmed (Art. 954, Paragraph 1). The other way around, a dead person cannot inherit either (Art. 957, Paragraph 1) or, if in the death of several persons it cannot be estimated if one preceded the other, the same law forbids them to pass their legacy to one another, breaking the reciprocal capacity to inherit if the death would have occurred differently (Art. 957, Paragraph 2).
To conclude, even if the lack of precision paves the way for a shift regarding the methods used for estimating the time of death, I consider that further relying on Algor Mortis measurements, yet always combined with other post-mortem changes, may align this traditional method with the constant development of forensic practice and successfully solve more of the unexpected case-turns the future still keeps unveiled.
By Iulia Chisiu
This material was published in Lawyr.it Vol. 5 Ed. 3, September 2018, available only online.
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Gutevska V., Stankov A., Pavlovski A., Jakovski G.I., Janeska,Z., Poposka, B., 2013. Estimation of Time Since Death by Using Algorithm in Early Postmortem Period. Global Journal of Medical Research, [S.l.], aug. 2013. [online] Available at: <https://www.medicalresearchjournal.org/index.php/GJMR/article/view/355>. Date accessed: 28 March 2018.
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