Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Kevin Neal, Convicted of Murder by Forensic Entomology

The Stages of Death

"It is practical to divide this postmortem interval into arbitrary stages, with the understanding that these stages frequently overlap and are poorly defined temporally," writes forensic pathologist Glenn M. Larkin, M.D. in Forensic Sciences.

Book cover: Forensic Pathology in Criminal Cases
Book cover: Forensic Pathol-
ogy in Criminal Cases

"The evaluation of changes that occur in a body after death is important for several reasons: it may be helpful in estimating the length of the postmortem interval (time since death) and, therefore, the actual time of death ... and postmortem changes may be helpful in evaluating the accuracy or reliability of witness statements and other information," write pathologists Randy Hazlik and Michael A. Graham in Forensic Pathology in Criminal Cases.

Each body passes through a series of stages, but as noted previously, the many variables make only broad generalizations possible. Different scientists have their own personal preferences for the names of these stages. For example, Hazlik and Graham describe three stages: Early: "demonstrable onset in minutes to hours after death"; advancing: "...days to weeks after death"; and advanced: "usually apparent weeks or more after death."

Noted forensic entomologist M. Lee Goff of the University of Hawaii uses a five-stage model (fresh, bloated, decay, post-decay and skeletal). Another common classification described by Larkin divides the stages into "perimortem, early postmortem, and decomposition."

M. Lee Goff
M. Lee Goff

When Andy Stickley found the bodies of India and Cody in the Nettle Creek Cemetery that September day, the children had by every definition passed into the last stages of post-mortem activity. Trace evidence linking them to their killer would be difficult to find because the remains had been exposed to the elements of a hot Ohio summer. Nature had taken its course and left investigators little to work with. But nature is subject to physical laws, and the investigators called in to trace the children's killer knew this. The key to catching the murderer would depend on a careful reading of the clues Mother Nature had left behind.