All in a day's work for the Death Detectives - WALB.com, Albany News, Weather, Sports

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All in a day's work for the Death Detectives

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November 22, 2004

Moultrie -- A single finger print, strand of hair, or drop of blood can solve a murder mystery. Investigators use high tech equipment and tests to find these clues at a crime scene.

But the evidence needed to solve a murder or mysterious death is also left behind on the victim's body. It's the job of a medical examiner to find these clues and determine how the victim died.

Two weeks ago today, a Moultrie home became the sight of the worst mutli-murder south Georgians had seen in decades.All were shot to death in a mass execution. Authorities called in medical examiner Rodney Bryan, a ten year veteran with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations. While investigators searched clues at the scene, Bryan began looking for evidence on the victims' bodies. "It always turns out to be a puzzle," said Bryan.

Medical examiners must help to solve the puzzle of a mysterious death. Each victim is brought to the crime lab in Moultrie for an autopsy. "Then we do external exams, looking for any type of fibers or anything that may have been left by the suspect," said Bryan.

There's always trace evidence left behind on the body. Under the nails-- "If they scratch them, we may have the other persons DNA or skin." On the clothes-- "You've got hair fibers, any type of material from the scene especially from the car if it's an accident - paint fibers."

And the fatal wound is often the best evidence for determining the murder weapon. "Pinpointing a particular object is hard to do. But if you can give them general facilities such as a small round object or a wide square object, that we'll give them enough information that they can go back to the scene to finish looking for."

Then comes the internal exam. "We look at the inside of the body to see if there are an injuries that correlates with the injuries outside."

Sometimes, a sexual assault test is performed. And bodily fluids are collected.

"I remove organ, set them in here and call out the weights." Forensic Pathology Assistant Maree Cobb sends a sample of each organ to a pathologist, who exams them to see if disease or poisons are present.

"A lot of times autopsy either prove or disprove a statement or event," said Bryan.

Sometimes before figuring out who "done it," medical examiners must identify the victim. In the case of fires or car wrecks that leave the body unrecognizable, ME's must use dental x-rays like these to I. D. the victim. "This is a very good comparison. We can line up where filling where and that type of things," said Cobb.

And fingerprints, each unique, can be photographed using a digital camera. "A lot of cases on decomposed bodies, the ridge detail is gone so you can't ink them. But this way you can clean them up, and we can still see the print," said Bryan.

The photograph is downloaded on a disk, and the print sent through a national database. "The computer they have can darken it so all the lines are seen even better."

The victim's prints are not always the only ones on their bodies. The touch of the murderer can also be found and sent through the database. Once the autopsy is complete, the trace evidence is delivered to a team of scientists.

"They can do drug ID, toxicology and blood alcohol tests. They can do the test here with all the blood, urine, and specimen that we give. Then, get the results back to help in the determination of the cause of death," said Bryan.

Those tests may take weeks even months to finish. "Then, there are still unanswered questions we've got." Unanswered questions that can forever haunt the victim's family. "There's no closure for them." And puzzle the medical examiner. "You feel sorry for the families that this has happened to."

But, sometimes the body unravels the mystery of its death. It just takes a death detective to find the puzzle solving clues.

There are only five GBI crime labs in the state. The Moultrie crime lab handles more than 300 case each year.

posted at 5:55PM by dave.miller@walb.com