Kym Davis, former deputy coroner

Posted: May 5, 2012 in Uncategorized

I would like to introduce my good friend and retired deputy coroner from the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office, Kym Davis.  I had the great good fortune to have her technical advice during the course of writing Dead By My Side.  She is affectionately known to me as my “creepy gal pal.”  Kym was with the Sacramento County Coroner’s Office from 2001 to 2007.

Kym, thank you for agreeing to share your expertise with us.

Can you tell us the basic overall duties of a:  Pathologist, Coroner, Medical Examiner?

Pathologist:

Forensic pathologists are specially trained physicians who examine the bodies of people who died suddenly, unexpectedly, or violently. The forensic pathologist is responsible for determining the cause (the ultimate and immediate reasons for the cessation of life) and manner of death (homicide, suicide, accidental, natural, or unknown). A forensic pathologist may be appointed as a Medical Examiner by a legal jurisdiction such as a city, county or state.

Coroner:

Typically a licensed medical professional.  Coroners supervise investigations to determine the cause of death for criminal cases, suicides and other similar situations. They are held under strict regulations and may only investigate deaths that occur within his or her jurisdiction. They can perform autopsies, pathological and toxicology reports and may also work with outside laboratories or physicians when needed. A coroner is usually employed by a specialized medical facility or law enforcement office. At times, coroners may also be called upon to act as expert witnesses in criminal trials.

Medical Examiner:
Medical examiners are also specially trained physicians who study cadavers to learn about diseases or to determine the cause of a person’s death. A medical examiner will work with physicians and law enforcement to rule a death as accidental, natural, suicide or homicide.

What are the categories of death?

Homicide, Suicide, Accidental, Undetermined and deaths where the decedent has not been seen by their physician within 20 days preceding the death. Physicians who sign their patients death certificates are typically Natural.

Can you tell us about declaring time of death?

Death is categorised in three ways:

  • Physiological time of death: The point at which the deceased body – including vital organs – ceased to function. (NOT brain death)
  • Estimated time of death: A best guess based on available information. (Brain death)
  • Legal time of death: The time at which the body was discovered or physically pronounced dead by another individual. This is the time that is shown – by law – on a death certificate. (Date body      found)

What clothing is worn in the field vs. what we see on TV:

Clothing on television is just for the viewer! It has nothing to do with real death investigation. What is typically worn on most death scenes are docker type pants, logo type polo shirts, treaded shoes, badge and gun, and Coroner vest if necessary for the scene. Minimal make-up is worn and you would never chew gum! Those types of things will make the smell of decomposition stay on your skin and in your mouth. Anything placed under your nose to repel the smell of odors is for television viewing. If it’s a fire scene or if it is extremely “messy” we also have coveralls that are worn.

How do insects affect death:

If a body has been dead for quite some time, forensic entomologists use the presence and life cycles of Calliphoridae (flies) and Coleoptera (beetles) on the body to help determine time of death. Examining the life cycle of blow flies and beetles on the body as well as the environment around the body (i.e. weather, temperature, precipitation, etc.) that might affect those insects is one of the best ways of estimating a time of death.

Within minutes of death, blow flies arrive and lay sacks of about 250 eggs on the body’s orifices such as mouths, nostrils, and genitals as well as any open wounds. In the first 24 hours these eggs hatch into first stage maggots. As they feed they molt into second-stage maggots and after several hours molt into third-stage maggots. If there are a significant number of third-stage maggots feeding on the body it can cause the body’s temperature to rise. Over time as a body decomposes, it becomes harder and harder to test blood and urine samples or examine stomach contents for traces of poison. Because maggots feed on the dead body, it is possible to extract that information from dissecting the maggots themselves.

Can you tell us how you would determine trauma vs. decomposition?

In determining trauma or decomposition you must consider the influence of environment, climate and the possibility of trauma to the body. If a body has trauma at the time of death it will likely decay faster than those remains that have not suffered either blunt force or sharp force trauma. Decomposition on a small child or infant will begin in the abdomen area and therefore look like trauma (bruising). The eyes can appear to be black and blue on a natural death. This is called Tache Noir. It is one of the important postmortem changes seen in the eye after death. If the eyes remain open after death, the areas of the sclera exposed to the air dry out, which results first in a yellowish, then brownish-blackish band like discoloration, thus making it appear like trauma.

It is a trained eye in trauma vs decomposition that can determine most events. Some however, may need the aid of the forensic pathologist at autopsy if the body has begun the decomposition process.

Can you describe rigor mortis for us?

Once the heart stops beating, blood collects in the most dependent parts of the body (livor mortis), the body stiffens (rigor mortis), and the body begins to cool (algor mortis).

As blood begins to settle in the parts of the body that are the closest to the ground, rigor mortis begins within two to six hours of death. Over the next four to six hours, rigor mortis spreads to the other muscles, including the internal organs. The onset of rigor mortis is more rapid if the environment is cold and if the decedent had performed hard physical work just before death. Its onset also varies with the individuals age, sex, physical condition, and muscular build.

After being in this rigid condition for twenty-four to thirty-six hours, the muscles relax and secondary laxity (flaccidity) develops. The length of time rigor mortis lasts depends on multiple factors, particularly the ambient temperature. Many infant and child corpses will not exhibit perceptible rigor mortis. This decreased perceptible stiffness may be due to their smaller muscle mass.

What is a “body snatcher?”

There are two (2) answers for this: First, “body snatchers” can be the person/persons who pick up the body at a scene where the death occured. They are hired by an independant third party to respond to coroner death scene’s and transport the bodies back to the coroner’s office.

They are to show respect for the dead per coroner standards and are prohibited from taking photos, discussing details or case information. They are typcially minimum wage workers. The second, “body snatchers” those who dig up graves to steal bodies, personal possessions or treasures.

Can you tell us about your most memorable case?

My MOST case: I had arrived for a death that occurred in a trailer home community. A call was placed for a welfare check on an elderly gentleman who had not been seen for some time. During the investigation of his death (natural), a call came in that another death had just been reported in the same community. I later determined that during my investigation, a female resident had been planning on committing suicide and was waiting for the most opportune time.

When she noticed that her neighbor was deceased and I was a coroner, she went into her residence and wrote a note to me, left a note on the door for the manager of the community, then went to another neighbor where she asked them to contact management in approximately 15 minutes. This neighbor did not know what was about to occur and believed she just wanted to discuss the death of the elderly gentleman.

Upon arriving at the residence, I found her deceased in her chair in the living room. There were notes lying neatly out on the kitchen counter for several different people. One envelope had “CORONER” written on it. The letter basically stated she had seen me arrive regarding her neighbor and didn’t want me to have to make an additional trip to come back and get her, so she decided it was her time. She let me know that she was elderly, had no contact with family and was getting ready to sell her trailer home. She did not want to grow old by herself and wanted to take matters into her own hands when the opportunity presented itself. She did not want to be left in an “old folks” home and not be able to feed or care for herself in old age and then ‘not’ be able to take her own life when she didn’t have the physical or mental means.

She stated that she watched me from the crowd and knew I would take care of her. She went to her neighbors’ home and asked her to summon the manager to respond to her residence in approximately 15 minutes. The note on the screen door of the elderly woman’s home for the manager read, “Come In.” After the 15 minute wait, the neighbor went to the manager stating the elderly woman wanted to speak with her. The manager did just that and upon entering the home, found the woman deceased.

You never know what you will wake up with in the “Day in the Life” of a Coroner. I did not know someone would actually kill themselves after seeing me.

(Note: I will not discuss the means of death as it could lead to possible suicides for others comtemplating suicide.)

Thank you, Kym for this insightful journey into the world of a coroner.

Please note that Kym will be a frequent guest on this blog, so if you are not one of the 25 entered into the drawing, there will be more chances.

About my blog:  I will be posting something new once a week around this same time.  I would love to post more often, but have to allow time for my writing pursuits.  Join me next Saturday to learn about missing and unidentified persons.

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Comments
  1. Kym Davis says:

    Hi Gloria! Thanks for allowing me to be welcomed on your blog…Dead By My Side was an awesome adventure with you and I look forward to reading what comes out of that amazing brain of yours! CGP –

  2. gallowk says:

    Truth really can be stranger than fiction! I love the “most memorable” case. So sad! What an amazing career. Fascintatin!

  3. darren says:

    Interesting Stuff!

  4. Tami says:

    What a fascinating interview, Gloria. Good job!

  5. Joyce Mason says:

    I really appreciated this interview, the “deHollywoodized” version of a coroner’s life. I’m sure there are many other poignant stories in addition to the elderly woman’s suicide. I think a great book would be to interview numerous coroners and CSIs about the tender side of their work, to share many stories of most memorable cases. Kym’s most memorable is heart wrenching and highlights such an important issue–the dilemma of our aging population. A modern sociological text and commentary could be made in a compilation of these stories. Of course, it’s more fun to write fiction. (I do, too.) But it’s food for thought and something I’d like to read as a mystery reader and writer.

  6. Kym Davis says:

    Thanks gallowk…Truth REALLY is stranger than fiction! It was an honor to get to know her in death… thanks for writing in ❤ .. CGP Kym

  7. Kym Davis says:

    Thanks Darren! Be sure to continue to check out Gloria’s posts! Never know what you’ll find in these fascinating words! ❤ … CGP Kym

  8. Kym Davis says:

    Tami –
    Be sure to stay posted for upcoming interviews! SO much to be covered, uh, UN-convered on these topics! Stay tuned! ❤ CGP Kym

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