When it comes to reading a good mystery, nothing is more exasperating than being pulled out of the story’s spell by an author’s inaccurate detail, which is why mystery writers like to get it right.
Hennepin County Medical Examiner Andrew Baker, MD would like writers to get it right, too. His presentation–complete with graphic images of human remains–at the Twin Cities’ Sisters in Crime meeting on Tuesday gave over three dozen members a chance to learn autopsy goals and procedures, and a chance to ask specific questions about medical examiner work that will give crime writing authenticity.
The first thing Dr. Baker wanted to clarify is that despite what television may have us believe, a medical examiner’s job is anything but sexy. Once bodies start decomposing, they begin to look the same. Bloated. Gray. Green. The skin kind of slips off, making the victim kind of unidentifiable. And therein lies the single most important piece of evidence needed to solve any crime: the identity of the victim.
Dr. Baker ascertains identity through a variety of ways: personal effects, dental records, x-rays, fingerprints, and TV’s favorite, DNA. Although he says, “unlike the medical examiners on television, I cannot tell what kind of car they drove or how they voted in the last election.” Yes, it is clear Dr. Baker does not think highly of the unscientific, godlike skills medical examiners receive on TV.
When determining cause of death, the external examination of the body is crucial to the medical examiner. He pays close attention to pattern injury. Patterns of bruises that reveal what kind of weapon may have been used: a baseball bat or looped extension cord for example. Every once in awhile a body with bite marks comes through. You find a body with bite marks, you know the death was up close and personal. Seat belt marks due to a fatal car crash are helpful to insurance companies as well as car manufacturers.
While listening to the hour-long presentation, it is also clear that Dr. Baker knows his stuff. He’s calm, complete, prepared, and articulate. He said he has to be thorough for families, the law, public health, and in case he needs to testify in court. The first time he was cross-examined by an attorney, he said he felt like this:
That feeling has since gone away. Dr. Baker’s past assignments include identifying victims in the 9/11 Pentagon attack, Hurricane Katrina, and the 35W bridge collapse in Minneapolis.
It was a terrific, informative presentation for crime writers, and Dr. Andrew’s patience with our questions remains much appreciated.
For more county medical examiner information, see http://www.hennepin.us/me
A big round of applause also goes out to Erin Hart, Sisters in Crime President, for orchestrating this event. The Twin Cities’ chapter of Sisters in Crime meets the first Tuesday of every month at Once Upon a Crime Bookstore in Minneapolis unless otherwise noted. All–including brothers–are welcome: readers, writers, librarians, bookstore owners, and publishers. For more information or to become a member, please visit the SINC website: http://www.twincitysinc.org/