Staying still for a photograph to be taken is one of the requirements for capturing the moment and transforming it into a tangible, visually-clear memory. Since the human passage through this world is always limited, it is no wonder that portraits are seen as immortal tokens of one’s life. Far more than longing to stop time, it is human nature to seek remembrance in everything we undertake, sometimes reaching this outcome through exaggerated means. Perhaps seen as the promise of one’s memory to outlast their body, the early nineteenth century brought a more unusual, yet popular demand for in memoriam family portraits (Hirsche, 2009). This would require for deceased members of the family to ‘pose’ before burial, just as if they were alive, alone or paired with the living. As such, before becoming a profession, taking pictures of dead people was an art.

‘No artist is ever morbid’ (Wilde, 1931), so to speak in defence of the forensic expert which nowadays carries the burden of taking photos when arriving at a crime scene. Fortunately, a recently deceased body will stay still, not at all for artistic purposes, but more as a result of a stage of death setting in, revealing the last position the body was in before the person was left to die. I will continue the compilation by framing the next topic: Rigor Mortis, the second stage in human decay and the accurate estimation of the time of death.

1. Terminology

Once the death sets in, the body falls motionless and a gradual release of muscular tension will follow (Pounder, 2018) since physical movement is unable to continue beyond the cessation of vital functions. This flaccid state will be present in all muscles and it will take anywhere between three-six hours for it to be complete, before being replaced by post-mortem rigidity or Rigor Mortis (Swift, 2006). However, this hardening process eventually diminishes, so it will not be long until the muscles will relax again.

Rigor mortis (Latin: Rigor – stiffness, mortis – of death) stands for the stiffening of the muscles as a reaction occurring after death, due to a physico-chemical process that takes place internally. In a nutshell, the muscles are imitating a pre-mortem normal contraction which spans over a longer period of time, supported by the post-mortem loss of integrity, without being followed by a corresponding body movement (Pounder, 2018). Externally, the body will remain frozen in the last position adopted after the events which led to that person’s death. Newton’s law encounters a ground for application here as well, since post-mortem rigidity cannot set the body in a position that defies gravity or the surrounding objects (Pounder, 2018).

A peculiar aspect that may sometimes overlap with Rigor Mortis would be the cadaveric spasm, which is an instantaneous local muscular contraction. In spite of its rare occurrence, it is most often linked with violent deaths (Pounder, 2018) and unlike the second stage of human decay, the contraction is persistent and is released only when the muscles begin to be destroyed by the process of decomposition (Gordon and Shapiro, 1982).

2. Rigor Mortis - main features

The collapse of vital functions leads to visible muscular flaccidity, regularly marked by a dropped lower jaw and sometimes eyes wide open with no reaction to stimuli (Pounder, 2018). Starting from the head, Rigor Mortis will continue to develop downwards, covering, in the end, the entirety of the skin surface. The whole rigor process will happen sequentially, yet rarely symmetrical, across all muscles in the same way flaccidity took over (Kobayashi et al., 2001). As such, the eyelids, the jaw, and the neck will be the first to stiffen, and only after the limbs will follow. The core of the body will be the last to harden, completing the process.

A shared characteristic of the bodies found in the Rigor stage, especially those found flat on their back, is the slightly flexed joints of the upper limbs (Pounder, 2018) as if each hand is gently holding something inside the palm. However, this must not be mistaken for a local stiffening, as in the case of the post-mortem spasm. The rigidity of the joints is characteristic of this particular stage of death, while the spasm is usually an exception that may interfere with the onset of the Rigor Mortis stage.

When the process starts and how long it lasts are questions that do not have a ‘fixed’ answer. Even so, a study (Dalal et al., 2006) has accurately analysed the rate and starting point of the onset of Rigor Mortis through an overall examination of male and female dead bodies, regardless of their cause of death. The average time of manifestation has been approximated to eight hours, having cases that showed signs of rigidity an hour after death and some only after twenty-four hours. The duration of the process has been estimated to about eighteen hours, the shortest being three hours and the longest thirty-three hours. The disappearance of the signs of Rigor Mortis was as irregular as the intervals presented above, meaning that on average they disappeared after about thirty-four hours.  By contrast, in one case they disappeared after fifteen hours and in another after seventy hours. Compared to Algor Mortis, Rigor Mortis is temporary. After reaching the maximum level of stiffness, it will be replaced progressively by a secondary relaxation of the muscles. 

3. Estimating the time of death

The elements related to the death of a person are analysed as diligently as possible in order to state whether they died of natural causes or due to an external factor. The most common opinion among specialists, encompassed in a list of situations which are unequivocally associated with death, places Rigor Mortis alongside decapitation, decomposition, and massive cranial/cerebral destruction, which are all elements that easily establish the death of a person (Lockey, 2002). Consequently, the phenomenon of Rigor Mortis is indisputable proof for a person to be considered deceased.

Once death is confirmed, the process of measuring the interval in which it may have occurred begins. After the assessment of the first signs of death, the Rigor Mortis stage will act as an additional clue when estimating the time of death. Contrary to Algor Mortis, this stage has neither the same reliability, nor is it first in the assessment hierarchy. Besides not having the formula to calculate how much time has passed since its onset, it can only affect the time frame previously provided by other measurement tools. Even so, Rigor Mortis must be taken into account because due to the fact that it preserves the last position of the body, it contributes to the reconstruction of the events which led to the person’s death. Multiple conclusions can be drawn based on the stages of development of Rigor Mortis in a particular case. Three basic scenarios can be built based on these starting points:

3.1. The body is not stiff, yet there is proof that Rigor Mortis is complete;

Firstly, this can lead to the assumption that it is not a recent death, especially if putrefaction is already present. Therefore, considering the number of hours needed for Rigor Mortis to set in that specific environment, the time frame where the approximate time of death might be placed can be narrowed to a few days already.

Secondly, due to the hardening process Rigor will indicate the position in which the body was left, unless it defied gravity or it was moved on purpose. Factors such as frost can preserve the posture of the dead for a significant amount of time. Back in 1991, up in the Italian Alps, the warming climate revealed a so-thought alpinist who might have died not too long before being discovered. Later on, it actually proved to be the oldest body in the world. Worldwide known as Otzi, his body froze soon after his death and ice kept him still for about 5000 years. Although his time of death has solely an archaeological significance today, his belongings, such as the dagger, ax, and his clothes, alongside the flint arrowhead found in his left shoulder, speak a great deal about the cause of his death. Also, postmortem spasms can help maintain the entire body in its last position, depending on the affected area. Soldiers from World War II were often found dead holding tightly to their rifle as they were aiming for a target before their death. Circumstantial evidence, such as when the order to attack was given, what infantry regiment the corpse belonged to, and how far the soldier was found from his usual position on the battlefield, is highly valuable in determining how much time it took him to arrive at the place of death and therefore approximate the moment when he passed away. Another example of post-mortem spasms was observed on the civilians and soldiers who died at the Brest Fortress siege. They were found having their hands ‘glued’ on helmets filled with water and this points to death caused by dehydration, exhaustion, or due to water poisoning, a method practiced by the invading army to break the defense. This reality was depicted in the memorial sculpture ‘Thirst’, inspired by the positions of the dead found on the river banks. 

3.2. The body is in the midst of Rigor Mortis development;

Evaluating the level of development of Rigor Mortis when it is in the process of setting in on various parts of the body can lead to information regarding an approximate time of death. If only the face and neck are rigid, that means the process started a short time ago. Also, if all limbs are stiff, but the core muscles are not, the process is most likely half-way halfway through.

Unfortunately, this is not a clear-cut answer in all cases. A specific maneuvering of the body during the development of Rigor Mortis can break the process and, since it does not naturally restore, it can result in questioning whether Rigor Mortis ever started or if it ended naturally. In this case, Rigor will be valuable to a lesser extent, but it would still be able to establish whether the body has been moved or not after death.

For example, one case (D’Souza et al., 2011) reported the dead body of a woman with ligature strangulation marks, found in an open field, at 7 AM, in an unusual position for the location where it was discarded. The head of the victim was resting on the back with the face slightly tilted to the right, whereas the direction of saliva dribbling from her mouth was directed towards the left side of the face. Moreover, both legs were flexed at hip and knee, in a position defying gravity, as if the body had to fit in a bag, rather than lie flat on a surface. The police and coroners agreed upon the same idea: the body was brought from a different location and it was placed into an unusual position , prior to the onset of Rigor Mortis, in an attempt to hide evidence of a homicide and lure the investigators to follow a false lead.

3.3. The body is not stiff and Rigor Mortis has not appeared.

Different from the scenarios above, in this case, resuscitation prevails over the assessment of death since the revival of vital functions may still be possible. A basic example would be the case of a person dragged from the water in an unresponsive state, which may not directly imply they are dead, or a person who fainted in the street. So far, the lack of onset of Rigor Mortis will not help in assigning a death diagnosis, but rather dismiss it. Still, if Rigor Mortis appears after the body is found, it can provide enough reasons to believe the person has died that very day. For the medical staff this will involve special care of the body to ensure normal development of Rigor Mortis under their surveillance, to avoid any compromised evidence or ineffective procedures of the assessment of death.

A rather peculiar case is the death of Roberto Calvi, dubbed the ‘God’s banker’. Back in 1982, a massive political scandal led The Banco Ambrosiano`s chairman to flee from Italy to the United Kingdom, for him to be spotted hanging under the Blackfriars Bridge, in London, a couple of days after the fact. Investigators have been struggling for a long time to reach a clear verdict and to gather enough evidence in order to choose the right answer for the investigation: murder or suicide? Evidence-wise, the banker was found beneath the beams, with money and bricks stuffed in his pockets. The bricks were found to bear no fingerprints of the deceased and no signs of struggle were documented, so a suicidal intention could not have been presumed. The autopsy proved that no water was found in his lungs, so drowning was excluded, and the neck was not broken, thus removing the idea of death by hanging. On top of this, the bridge was under maintenance  and collecting paint flakes, as well as rust marks, would have been unavoidable for someone climbing the scaffolding. And still, no such evidence was found on the banker’s suit. The lack of a suicidal note, together with a significant distance between the hotel where he was staying at and the place where he was found dead are contributing to the controversy surrounding this case (Posner, 2015).

In an attempt to tie Calvi’s death to the subject at hand, one may consider two paths: Rigor Mortis did not appear or Rigor Mortis was disturbed in its progress. I will link these two starting points to the time his clock stopped due to contact with water, around 01:52 AM, which I will consider being the time of the hanging. Since the Thames is a tidal river and the high tide was recorded at midnight and mid-day, the crime scene might have been set up between midnight and the time when the clock stopped.

Having reached the conclusion that the deceased did not climb down the scaffolding and more likely he had been pulled up to it, his death most probably occurred before the hanging, not through suicide, even if it was meant to look like one. In both the real scenario and the misleading one, a recent death is present, so Rigor Mortis requires assessment. From my perspective, Rigor Mortis might not have started yet when the body was hanged, but it surely locked the body in a different position from the one he was in when the death occurred. And this was possible since the corpse had its muscles relaxed and was easy to move. If, however, Rigor Mortis started developing at the time of hanging, its onset was disturbed due to the previous manipulation of the body and the change of environment.

A time interval can be set from the moment when he was last seen, at his hotel in Chelsea, until the moment he was found, or even better, the moment of the hanging, since it was established above that he was already dead by then. Evaluating how much time it would have taken him to cover that distance on a regular basis is another aspect that helps in reconstructing the sequence of events. Taking this time span and tracing a parallel with the incidence and development of Rigor Mortis in Roberto Calvi’s case, we can aptly provide a timely approximation of his moment of death.

4. The criticism of this method

This post-mortem stage might seem uncommon at first. While attempts to justify the lack of predictability provided by Rigor Mortis were made, efforts to raise awareness regarding the unreliability of Rigor Mortis in estimating the time of death were undertaken at the same time. Further relevant elements that affect the development of this stage include external factors, such as the temperature of the environment (heat is an accelerator for Rigor) or the site of the discovery. If an individual is experiencing a fever, heavy physical effort prior to death or if they are located in an arid area, Rigor will start much sooner than in bodies with a normal temperature at the moment of death (Clark et al., 1997; Varetto and Curto, 2005). Furthermore, clothing also has an impact. A naked body, in comparison with one covered in layers, is more susceptible to variations in the onset and development of the process (Cahoon, 1992). The state of health and the age of the deceased is of high interest as well. It has been shown that an excessive dose of insulin as a cause of death in the case of a diabetic may interfere with the average range of time for Rigor, making it develop abnormally fast (Kuhn and Bauer, 1924).

To a certain extent, the aforementioned elements are seen as the root cause for the great variation in the estimations delivered following the method. Besides this, it is important to remember the main common element of Rigor Mortis: its temporary status, which proves its value only in the context of recent deaths. Another weak point for Rigor is that once fully established, it will not reappear once broken down by force. Therefore the process is broken intentionally most of the time, aiming to mislead the investigators by forcibly bending a joint and tearing the muscle against the fixation of Rigor. Consequently, it will raise confusion as to whether Rigor Mortis has not yet appeared or has already finished. Still, the natural reappearance of Rigor after breaking it, albeit to a lesser degree, suggests that death occurred less than 8 hours before Rigor was broken, so time measurements can again be explored (Pounder, 2018).

Last but not least, a curious fact that shakes the status of Rigor Mortis as a definite sign of death is the incidence of this stage in a living patient. Similar to the occurrence of a localised Rigor from a previous case (Heller et al., 2005), in a study conducted on a patient that was scheduled for a mitral valve replacement surgery, Rigor features appeared before cardiac arrest (Chakravarthy, 2010). It has been reported that the living status of the patient was confirmed, whilst the joints were mimicking post-mortem stiffness. The author’s explanation for the cause of premature Rigor was the blood supply that came to a halt, which is one of the processes that stops once a person dies. This opens the gate for inquiry and further investigation no the occurrence of Rigor Mortis and all the processes that support its foundation, even in a detrimental way for the Rigor’s reliability forensic-wise, as long as it sheds more light on the matter.

5. Broader influence

Death may be the end of life, but from a legal perspective, it also heralds certain documents to come into effect, such as a will (Article 1034 of Law 287/2009) or life insurance. The assets of the deceased will be divided among the successors, with a special preservation regime for family heirlooms. The living spouse will be released from the marital tie, although the family name will remain.

If the deceased left behind any form of creative work protected by the law, the patrimonial aspect of the copyright claim will be transmitted through succession (Ardelean, 2015) and extended for 70 more years after the death of the author (Article 28 and 40 of Law 8/1996).

6. Ending remarks

I could not agree more with Locard’s principle, which states that ‘every contact leaves a trace. And in homicide cases, the highest value left behind by criminals is the dead body. Locked in place by Rigor Mortis, it truly reveals the last position before death, as if the deceased was posing to provide an answer to the first three out of the five W’s: who, where, when, why and by what means a person came to his/her death.

As a conclusion, it can be highlighted that this post-mortem stage literally embodies evidence regarding the last moments of someone’s life, while also delivering factual proof. Since it bears witness to the events which have put an end to a human’s life, it is more than necessary to accurately assess it and leave no victim without justice.

 

By Iulia Chisiu

 

This material was published in Lawyr.it Vol. 6 September 2020, available only online.

 

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Law 287/2009 (Romanian Civil Code)

Law 8/1996 (Romanian Copyright Law)