Death Investigations in the United States

Nationally renowned and award-winning mystery author Jan Burke came to speak to the Sisters in Crime Heart of Texas Chapter recently about two subjects dear to her heart: missing and unidentified people and the lack of uniform standards and training in the medico/legal death investigation system in the United States. She reminded the crime fiction authors in the crowd that they have a platform to bring attention to subjects such as these.

jan burke
Jan Burke

In the United States, 600,000 adults and children go missing every year. The vast majority are found relatively quickly. However, over ten thousand people remain missing for more than a year. And sadly, around 4,400 unidentified bodies are recovered every year. In an attempt to match the missing with the unknown dead, the Department of Justice and the National Institute for Justice created an online database called NamUs, the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

However, only three states require reporting of unidentified remains to the NamUs database. In most states, individual counties make the rules regarding handling of unidentified remains. Consequently, a person who vanishes in one county may turn up dead, lacking identification, four counties away, and their family may never be notified. This creates what NamUs calls the Nation’s Silent Mass Disaster: a huge volume of unsolved cases regarding missing persons and unidentified dead bodies.

One example of this problem is the case of Lupita Cantu. Lupita disappeared from San Antonio, Texas, in Bexar County, in April 1990. That same year her body was found near Pearsall, Texas, and buried as a Jane Doe, because authorities couldn’t identify her. She wasn’t identified until 2011, when DNA analysis finally matched her with her family. Pearsall is only about 55 miles from San Antonio, in Frio County. Had the counties been required to report unidentified remains and missing persons to a central clearinghouse, Lupita might have been identified much sooner. This problem is even more extreme in places where it’s easy to cross state lines. Someone who disappeared from one state might never be linked to remains found two states away.

NamUs creates a central clearinghouse for missing persons and unidentified remains, allowing both families of the missing and law enforcement agencies to enter information into the database in hopes of matching the missing with the dead. NamUs also can provide law enforcement agencies in rural, low-population, or underfunded counties the forensic resources needed to identify the dead, including forensic odontology, fingerprint examination, forensic anthropology, and DNA analyses. Families of the missing can receive DNA collection kits so that their data may be compared with the DNA from unidentified remains.

The NamUs clearinghouse is necessary because of the lack of uniformity in the handling of deaths by the medico/legal system in the United States. Each state has different standards and rules that apply to the person whose job it is to declare whether a death is natural, accidental, or homicide. Some states have medical examiners. Some states have coroners. Some of these people are elected. Some are appointed. Some are required to have medical training. Some are required to be forensic pathologists. And some aren’t required to have any special training whatsoever. Within each state, whether a county uses a coroner or a medical examiner may vary by county and by population.

This patchwork quilt of laws means that there are over 2,300 different systems for dealing with death for the more than 3,100 counties (or parishes, or whatever the state has labeled the entities) in the United States. Multiple scientific studies have reviewed these systems, and all have consistently returned the same recommendations. The population would be better served by a more consistent set of rules and regulations across the United States. The current system creates great disparities in the administration of justice.

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Jan Burke, photo by Helen C. Foster

For instance, in a county where a justice of the peace (J. P.) decides the nature of death, where the county has no medical examiner and must send bodies several counties away for autopsy, the county’s budget may determine if a death by unknown causes is ever reviewed. Consider this scenario. Suppose a fifty-year-old man is found dead in his bed at home. The house was locked and police can see no visible evidence of foul play. The police may ask the J. P. to find the death is suspicious, to have the body sent for autopsy in a neighboring county. However, the J. P. has the power to deny that request. The J. P. may say that since nothing looks suspicious, the police should assume it’s a natural death, close the case, and save the county the money they would have paid for the autopsy.

Crime fiction writers use death to build plots in novels all the time. Ms. Burke suggested that by mentioning NamUs as part of a fictional family’s search to find a missing loved one, authors can raise awareness in the general public about this resource available to real families who are missing a relative. She also requested that writers be accurate in their depiction of death investigations. Many people are under the misapprehension that all death is investigated like it is depicted on C. S. I. and other similar dramas on television. Those shows don’t remotely reflect the reality of death investigations in many parts of the country. As writers, we can do better. We can reflect reality.

*****

N. M. Cedeño writes short stories and novels that are typically set in Texas. Her stories vary from traditional mystery, to science fiction, to paranormal mystery in genre. Most recently, she has been writing the Bad Vibes Removal Services Series which includes short stories and the novel The Walls Can Talk (2017). Find her at nmcedeno.com or amazon.com/author/nmcedeno or on Facebook.

Thank You, Lady Gaga

 

K.P. Gresham

 

 

by K.P. Gresham

 

I recently had the incredible honor of attending Lady Gaga’s Las Vegas Jazz Show. I say honor, because this woman is so talented. Not just at singing, or dancing or playing the piano.

This lady can write.

I write fiction. I like to say I kill people for a living. This incredible woman writes the language of the soul.

I was struck by one song in particular. I am in the final stages of putting out my next book, MURDER ON THE THIRD TRY.  The questions I ask myself are overwhelming, and all have a common theme: Is this book any good? I know this something most writers struggle with. Actually, Robert De Niro said it best. “The mind of a writer can be a truly terrifying thing. Isolated, neurotic, caffeine-addled, crippled by procrastination and consumed by feelings of panic, self-loathing and soul-crushing inadequacy. And that’s on a good day.” That pretty much sums up my inner dialogue as I walked into Lady Gaga’s show.

Then she performed “Born This Way.”

From the time I learned to read and write, I knew I wanted to be an author. I wanted to create worlds that people could escape to, tell stories that would make people laugh. I wanted my creations to go down on paper and be shared with my friends and family. I knew in my heart I was born to be a writer.

One of the lyrics in “Born This Way” says, “In the religion of the insecure I must be myself, respect my youth.” This spoke to me on so many levels, but especially made me remember that I’ve known all my life that writing is what I born to do.

As Lady Gaga sings, “I’m beautiful in my way ‘cause God makes no mistakes. I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way…I was born to survive…I was born to be brave…Don’t hide yourself in regret…There ain’t no other way.”

Writers, we are who we are. All the creativity and self-doubt. All the procrastination and all-nighters.  All the work at honing our skills and all the stuff we haven’t learned yet. Our lives would be a lot better if we could come to terms with ourselves as Lady Gaga has written it so beautifully. Be brave. Accept this is what we do and don’t look back or give in to doubts. We’re on the right track.

Wow. Thank you, Lady Gaga for talking to my soul that night. I’ll try to keep your words in my heart. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead, I’ll keep writing.

After all, I was born this way.

***

Books by K.P. Gresham

Learn more about K.P. at www.kpgresham.com.

Sit Down, Shut Up, and . . . You’re Invited

 

M.K. Waller

 

 

by M. K. Waller

 

Friday evening David said, “Should I wake you at nine tomorrow?” and I said, “Why?” because I never know what day it is, and he said, “You’re going to Saturday writing practice at the Yarborough library,” and I said, “At the Yarborough,” and he said, “Yes, the Yarborough,” and I said, “The Yarborough, the Yarborough.

So the next morning I sat in the parking lot of the Twin Oaks library for nine minutes, until I knew it was open, because I didn’t want to wait outside and freeze, and at one minute after ten, I went inside and found the meeting rooms dimly lit and empty, and I said to myself, “The Yarborough.”

Then I considered what route I should take to the Yarborough: Lamar St. and be extra late, or Loop 1/MoPac and fight traffic. I decided on MoPac because it was Saturday morning and there wouldn’t be as many nuts on MoPac as there are on weekdays.

Fizzing about the nuts on MoPac, I turned left out of the Twin Oaks parking lot—I should have turned right—and wandered through a neighborhood, and came to a semi-dead end and then another, so I had to turn left again, twice, and by the time I got back to civilization, I had decided I was on W. Oltorf Street, where I wanted to be, and from which I would turn onto S. 1st.

But I wasn’t on Oltorf, I was really on W. Mary, where I didn’t want to be, because the left turn from W. Mary onto S. 1st is unprotected and there’s always oncoming traffic. But I didn’t know I was on W. Mary until I got to S. 1st and saw the light with the unprotected left turn. I was lucky and turned without incident.

From S. 1st I made my way to MoPac, which was almost completely devoid of nuts. Then I had to ruminate over which exit to take, because Burnet Rd. doesn’t have an exit, and the Northland exit goes to the acupuncturist, and Research is too far north and goes somewhere else, and that’s when I decided I should have driven up Lamar to 45th and been extra late. And then the little light above my head came on and I said, “Forty-fifth.”

So I took the 45th St. exit and went to Burnet, where I turned left and headed north to Hancock Blvd. and the Yarborough library. However, even though I went to the Yarborough on the second Sunday of every month for two years, when the Sisters in Crime chapter met there, and I knew exactly where I was going, I overshot Hancock. I wasn’t certain I’d missed it, but when I got to Northloop, I knew I’d missed Hancock, and when I passed the Monkey Nest and then Karavel, I knew I’d better turn around immediately before I found myself in Waxahachie. So I turned around in the Mephisto parking lot.

This time I managed to turn onto Hancock, as I would have done before if I’d recognized it, and about half a block down, I turned into the Yarborough library parking lot, and parked, and went inside and got to the meeting room only twenty-eight minutes late. Five other members sat around the table writing, and I was so glad to see them, and they said they were glad to see me and that they’d just begun a fifteen-minute writing.

And then I did what I’ve done one Saturday morning a month for the past twenty years: I sat down and shut up and wrote.

*

I wrote this last Saturday after I finally arrived at the writing practice group Fifteen Minutes of Fame, to which you’re all invited. I’m posting it as proof that quality is not our middle name. I did edit a little so it would make sense.

Please read on.

***

A Formal Invitation: Please join us at 15 Minutes of Fame

15 Minutes of Fame meets once a month at Twin Oaks Branch Library (unless it meets at the Yarborough), from 10:00 a.m. to noon. No dues, no fees, no RSVPs. Just show up.

We are not professionals. We are not English teachers. We just like to get together and write.

What we do: We sit around a table and write for a specified length of time–fifteen minutes is the default–and then read aloud what we’ve written.

We read aloud if we want to. No pressure. Passing is perfectly all right.

All you need are pen and paper. Or you can bring your laptop.

We don’t care how you spell or punctuate. You don’t have to punctuate at all if you don’t want to. You don’t have to live in Austin.

We offer no critique. We don’t comment. When something is funny, we laugh.

Our schedule is posted at http://minutesoffame.wordpress.com.

(If we meet at the Yarborough instead of Twin Oaks, we’ll announce it there. The Yarborough is scheduled to close March 2 for renovation, but it might still be open then.)

***

M. K. Waller writes short stories of mystery and suspense. She’s been published in the anthologies Murder on Wheels and Lone Star Lawless, and online at Mysterical-E. Find her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kathy.waller68/ and on Twitter @KathyWaller1. A member of the Writers’ League of Texas and Austin Mystery Writers, she blogs at Telling the Truth, Mainly. She lives in Austin.