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HomeCRIMEDrowning death: the forensic hoax

Drowning death: the forensic hoax

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Forensics: exact science or dramatised fiction? #8

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Death by drowning is one of those instances where more than the police, the sheer ignorance of forensics is largely responsible for the bungling and patently wrong inferences from post mortem. Most Indian doctors and the so-called forensic experts presume that one who dies in water will have necessarily died of swallowing water. It is not true.

The hoax of the conventionally used diatom test

The diatom test is yet another massive fraud of forensic techniques—a classic example of ignorance that pervades the fraternity who have not read anything beyond some elementary textbook that has copied from 19th-century works and the police officers who have not studied anything at all!

Diatoms (Bacillariophyceae) are microscopic, unicellular algae found in all sources of fresh and saltwater. They have a silica body that is hard, acid-resistant and can be seen using a microscope. Diatoms can enter the bloodstream of a drowning person if the lungs fill with so much water that the alveoli in the lungs break. This allows the water and any diatoms contained in it to enter the bloodstream.

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Diatoms have been used for diagnostic tests for drowning based on the hypothesis that if the victim was alive in water (that is, circulation was functional), diatoms will enter the systemic circulation and be deposited in organs like the bone marrow, liver, kidney and the brain—a long shot for someone who would die within four minutes!

The idea of the diatom test is to look for the presence of diatoms in the above-mentioned body organs. Looks fairly simple, isn’t it? However, real life is not so simple. Like most other forensic techniques, the research of J. H. Davis has shown that the diatom test also gives a high percentage of false positives and negatives.

There are several factors that make this test unreliable. In the first place, diatoms are not found in substantial numbers all year round, the peaks being during spring and autumn. This means that there may be insufficient or even no diatoms in the drowning fluid because of seasonal variations. Then, diatoms may also be found due to pollution by effluents. One can also obtain diatoms by inhaling or digesting them, or by aspiration of water containing them, particularly through easily contaminated foods like salads and shellfish. Diatoms have been found in the organs of individuals who had not drowned because they can also be present in the air and enter the lungs by being inhaled—found in the environment such as building industry and on dusting powder for rubber gloves. Back in 1963 itself, W. V. Spitz, at the Third International Meeting in Forensic Medicine in London, had shown that diatoms were plentiful in the air of Berlin.

Audrey Farrugia and Bertrand Ludes have listed five studies where they found the diatom test giving false-positive results linked to the presence of diatoms in closed organs of non-drowned victims.

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Above all, the Indian forensic community has never realized that the species of the diatom found in the body needs to be matched with the species found from the alleged site—and there are some 15000 species! They just see diatom and form an opinion, which is pompously presented by the prosecution and meekly accepted by the defence!

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Equally Farcical Electrolyte Test

Freshwater is hypotonic (that is, having a lower osmotic pressure) relative to plasma. Therefore, when present in alveoli, it is absorbed into the pulmonary circulation; causing haemo-dilution, which, in turn, produces local haemolysis (destruction of red blood cells). Saltwater is hypertonic (that is, having a higher osmotic pressure) relative to plasma. Therefore, when present in alveoli, it attracts water into the airways from the pulmonary circulation, causing local haemo-concentration and severe pulmonary oedema. This means that, theoretically, the electrolyte concentration, particularly chloride ions in the blood will change as a result of drowning. However, as J. H. Modell et al point out, these tests are unreliable and unhelpful.

It must also be kept in mind that, as pointed out by J. D. K. Burton, both tests are further invalidated by decomposition of the dead body; they can only be of any possible value in bodies recovered soon after death.

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Dry drowning, a phenomenon largely unknown to Indian forensics

Not all persons whose bodies are recovered from the water will have died from its inhalation, although they may show features reflecting immersion in water. Most cops and ignorant forensics do not know that 10-15% of all cases of drowning are actually what is known as ‘dry drowning’ (or ‘hydration). This takes place when a small amount of water enters the larynx or trachea and causes a spasm of the larynx. The larynx becomes clogged by mucous, foam, and froth, and water never even enters the lungs. Hence the question of diatoms getting into the lungs and bloodstream does not even arise. I have never seen any doctor making a reference to ‘dry drowning’ in any post mortem report—indicating that they are actually unaware of it.

As W. Lawler points out, in cases of dry drowning, autopsies would not find the typical findings of true drowning, including characteristic foam in the airways, bulky and distended lungs, etc. Rather, it would present features of classic mechanical asphyxia (like cyanosis, congestion and petechial haemorrhages), it would confuse most Indian doctors. This means that if someone murders somebody by choking and then throws the body in water, it would confound the Indian forensics.

Murder by drowning: the nemesis of Indian forensics

Indian forensic community is so conditioned to think along structured lines that the mere presence of a body in water compels them to infer death by drowning. It could very well have been a murder. One could push somebody into the water, say from the railing of a bridge or well. In a post mortem, it is impossible to differentiate the findings from a suicidal jump or a purely accidental fall. Post mortem reports in such cases are left so vague by Indian doctors that they can damage a case materially.

It is quite possible that a victim was thrown overboard into the water. Even if the deceased knew swimming, he would tire after some time. He could very well develop hypothermia in cold waters.

In fact, if one fell into the water from a considerable height, two things might happen. The very impact of water might trigger a vasovagal shock or syncope. Second, the impact may be enough to rupture internal organs. In both situations, there would not be an occasion for death to be caused by drowning even if the body is found days later comfortably floating in the water. As such, the autopsy would be misleading and only a fool would call it drowning.

Moreover, the deceased could have been sedated or intoxicated before throwing him in water. It is not necessary that he or she should have been hit or injured. Hence, the absence of injury marks does not disprove murder.

A person committing suicide might also consume drugs or alcohol before jumping into the water so as to muster the courage.

One could take just a bucket of water and force someone’s head into it. Still, there would not be any noticeable injury marks.

If someone is found dead in a bathtub, he must invariably be checked for drugs, alcohol or poison. Otherwise, murder must be strongly suspected.

‘Brides in the Bath’ murders of England

A man called George Joseph Smith had married multiple times. Curiously, at least three of his wives were found dead in bathtubs in resorts. There were hardly any injuries on their bodies and post mortems gave out the finding of accidental death by drowning. Drowning in a bathtub was against elementary ‘police sense’. The police angle was that Smith always happened to benefit by the deaths of the women. This he managed by drawing up mutual wills for the inheritance money of the women, or through insurance policies purchased a little while ago.

Detective inspector Arthur Neil called the eminent pathologist Dr Bernard Spilsbury. Spilsbury developed a theory that Smith, the loving husband, would approach his new wife as she reclined in the bath. She would suspect nothing of his evil intention as he stooped over the bath and deftly slid an arm under her knees, or grabbed her ankles, and quickly lifted her legs, possibly giving her head a gentle push down with his free hand. She, taken by surprise, would at once be submerged, with water surging up her nose and into her mouth, choking her. The sudden flood of water into her nose and throat would cause shock and sudden loss of consciousness, explaining the absence of injuries. It would then be a simple matter of holding her in position for a minute or so, with drowning the inevitable consequence. He actually went on to demonstrate that privately before the judge with experienced female divers hired for the job and got the death penalty for Smith.

How many Indian forensics are even aware of this case or the lessons of this case even as Spilsbury had solved it over a century ago in 1915?

Death of an Indian actress in Dubai in bathtub

Readers may recall that there was this sensational case of the death of a famous Indian actress in her 50s, often hailed as India’s first female superstar. Known for her facial beauty and dancing skills, and winner of numerous awards, this woman from South India was said to be the highest-paid actress in the Indian entertainment industry during the 1980s and 1990s. She was found mysteriously dead in her bathtub in her hotel room in Dubai. The case was, for obvious reasons, hushed up there and nobody ever learnt what had happened or how the investigation had determined whatever they had determined. Even if it was outside the jurisdiction of Indian law, there was no academic debate also over the case and its investigation.

J. M. Cameron very categorically states in the world-famous ‘Gradwohl’s Legal Medicine’ that a normal healthy conscious person does not drown accidentally. For children, murder cases by deliberate immersion are well documented. Moreover, it is a pure myth that one could fall asleep and then slide into the water. Therefore, as J. H. Pearnet al say in their paper, in such cases, foul play must be suspected.

Armed with this knowledge, you may yourself reflect upon the mysterious death of the Indian actress and surmise what would have actually happened. A woman, who was in the pink of health when she went abroad and was getting ready for dinner, could not have drowned in the bathtub. No way! Moreover, if one is to get ready for dinner, she or he does not have time to recline luxuriously in a bathtub. One would rather take a quick shower.

The point being made is that basic police sense should never be abandoned. As in the case of ‘Brides in the Bath’ murders of England, someone must have investigated who stood to gain financially from her death.

This mechanism also explains the death of two young women in the foot deep water of river Rembiara in Shopian, Kashmir in 2009. Instead of pulling legs, in their case, their heads could have been forced underwater.

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Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr N C Asthana IPS (Retd)
Dr. N. C. Asthana, IPS (Retd) is a former DGP of Kerala and ADG BSF/CRPF. Of the 51 books that he has authored, 20 are on terrorism, counter-terrorism, defense, strategic studies, military science, and internal security, etc. They have been reviewed at very high levels in the world and are regularly cited for authority in the research works at some of the most prestigious professional institutions of the world such as the US Army Command & General Staff College and Frunze Military Academy, Russia. The views expressed are his own.


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