Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Kevin Neal, Convicted of Murder by Forensic Entomology

'The Liver Bothers Me'

What did the presence of maggots in the liver tissue tell him? Menashe asked.

"The presence of liver would tell me that those bodies hadn't been there very long — very long meaning three weeks to a month," he said.

Finally, Menashe led Bass in a discussion of the stench of decomposing bodies. The defense was hoping to prove to the jury that the stench that farmer Andy Stickley smelled could not come from a pair of bodies that had been dead and decomposing for nearly two months.

Bass recounted how one of the earliest experiments at the Body Farm was designed to answer how a human corpse could lay in a vacant lot a stone's throw from several houses for four years and not be detected. The results of the experiment showed that the average human cannot smell decaying flesh beyond a distance of 30 yards. Furthermore, the stench varies over time, beginning to be detectable after four days, peaking in intensity after three weeks and finally dropping off totally as the remains begin to mummify.

After two months, "you have to walk up and get awful close to it," he added. "You'd have to stick your nose down close to it."

At the conclusion of her direct examination, Menashe asked Bass if he had an opinion about how long the children had been in Nettle Creek Cemetery. His answer was direct and blunt.

"If there was liver tissue that was taken out of the body, I don't think those bodies could have been there longer than three weeks to a month," he responded.

On cross-examination, Selvaggio was forced to get Bass to acknowledge several cases where his estimates of post-mortem interval turned out to be incorrect, including the "Colonel Shy case," where the decedent had been dead more than 110 years, when Bass estimated the PMI of one year. Despite the glaring error of the Colonel Shy PMI, Bass recounts the story of that case and the reasons for the error in his book. In fact, Shy, a Confederate colonel, had been embalmed and buried in an airtight cast iron coffin in civilian clothing. When he was disinterred, his skin was still intact.

"That's one of the reasons I started the Body Farm," Bass told Selvaggio.

Most importantly, after questioning by Selvaggio, Bass admitted that if the tissue containing the maggots was not liver, he would be forced to revise his PMI for India and Cody. But Bass pointed out that the coroner's report indicated a "tissue mass" infested with maggots was taken from India, while Cody's autopsy reported "one container of maggot-infested liver."

"The liver bothers me," Bass countered. "It really does."


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