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Establishing Time of Death in a Homicide

Solving the crime mystery through establishing the time of death.

There are 4 causes to death: natural causes, suicide, homicide and accidental deaths. Homicide occurs when another person is responsible for a person’s death, which could either be criminal or non-criminal. Criminal homicide refers to crimes with intent to kill. Non-criminal is sometimes caused by accident or self-defense.

Establishing the time of death in cases of homicide is important to be able to solve the mystery. There is a higher chance to solve homicide cases if it is discovered right after the murder. If not, then the murderer has more than enough time to hide or ran away from the crime scene. With homicides, it is important to keep in mind that if no arrest is made within 72 hours the chances of solving the crime lowers (Morn 2000). Another caution is that it isnot required completely to find the body to start a homicide investigation.

More importantly, knowing the actual or approximate time the homicide took place could offer much-needed clues to the identity of the murderer. By identifying probable suspects and knowing where they were at the time of homicide could pave the way for the solution of the crime. Great care must be taken then in conducting investigations to establish the time of death in a homicide.

When a person dies, there is a progression of processes that occur to help investigators determine the time of death. The following are the 26 stages the dead body goes through.

The 26 Stages of Death

  • At the Time of Death:
  • The heart ceases to function
  • The skin becomes taut and turns grey
  •  Muscles begin to relax
  • Bladder and bowels empty
  • The body temperature falls
  • After 30 minutes:
  • The skin becomes purple and pale
  •  The lips, finger and toe nails turn pale color as blood stops circulating.
  •  Livor Mortis or lividity occurs
  •  The hands and feet change color to blue
  •  The eyes sinks closer to the skull
  • After 4 hours:
  • Rigor mortis kicks in
  •  Lividity continues
  •  Rigor Mortis starts and turns the muscles rigid for 24 hours, then will make the body turn limp.
  • After 12 hours:
  •  Complete rigor mortis.
  • After 24 hours:
  •  The body takes on the ambient temperature
  • Semen dies for men
  •  The head and neck turn greenish-blue
  • The rest of the body takes on greenish-blue hue
  • Odor similar to rotting meat becomes overpowering
  •  The face is essentially no longer identifiable
  • After 3 days:
  • The gases in the body tissues creates large blisters on the skin
  •  The whole body begins to bloat
  •  Fluids comes out from the mouth, nose, eyes, ears and rectum and urinary opening
  • After 3 weeks:
  •  The skin, hair, and nails are loose
  •  The skin cracks and bursts open in many places because of the pressure of Internal gases and the breakdown of the skin itself
  •  Decomposition continues until skeleton remains. The teeth remains even for centuries because the enamel on the tooth is the strongest are often the only thing left, years and centuries later, because tooth enamel is the strongest material in the body. The jawbone will also most likely remain.

Estimating the Time of Death

There are at least two (2) estimates of the time of death present – the police department’s official estimate and the Medical Examiner’s estimate. The legal requirement is the time estimate provided should be within 4 hours accurate. 

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