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Q: Forensic medicine electrocution ( Answered 5 out of 5 stars,   11 Comments )
Subject: Forensic medicine electrocution
Category: Science > Biology
Asked by: curiousk-ga
List Price: $15.00
Posted: 06 Mar 2003 16:58 PST
Expires: 05 Apr 2003 16:58 PST
Question ID: 172938
I'm working on a murder mystery, and I need to know how the effects on
the human body of electrocution when an appliance is dropped in bath
water are different from the effects of electrocution when a person
comes into contact with power lines.  During an autopsy, could a
medical examiner tell the difference and how?
Subject: Re: Forensic medicine electrocution
Answered By: tutuzdad-ga on 06 Mar 2003 21:00 PST
Rated:5 out of 5 stars
Dear curiousk-ga;

Thank you for allowing me an opportunity to answer your interesting

The answer to your question is, “yes”, a medical examiner could tell
at autopsy whether or not someone has died as a result of electrical
shock from an appliance in the bathtub as opposed to having contacted
a high voltage utility wire. The interesting thing though is that this
is often something that is apparent to an observant person who was
well educated in death investigation. In my 22 years in law
enforcement, I have witnessed autopsies, known many coroners,
paramedics and medical examiners, and I have personally investigated
deaths caused by a wide variety of circumstances. I have also been
trained in death investigation and could probably tell, in most
situations whether or not someone died as a result of such a scenario
or had been strategically placed in the position in which they were
found following their death at another location by other means. One of
the initial methods of coming to this conclusion is to determine
whether the circumstances are consistent with the marks or damage to
the body. Then, and most importantly, is to determine, through
comparison, whether or not the body in question bears evidence that is
consistent with characteristic marks, damage or evidence to that has
been documented in known cases. Both of these will be instrumental at
autopsy, as you will see, in determining the actual cause of death.

First, let’s talk about the circumstances. Obviously, at death, the
body ceases to function. The heart stops, breathing stops and brain
activity comes to an end. This means that the heart no longer sends
blood to the lungs; therefore the blood is no longer being renewed.
Because the lungs are no longer functioning, air ceases to enter the
lungs allowing for room for other extraneous material, such as vomit
or bathwater to fill them. The amount of time the blood has been
without oxygen can be determined in a number or ways, one of which is
the level of coagulation, which occurs at a relatively predictable
rate. Cells can also be examined to see if the blood is contaminated
with bacteria from extraneous material, indicating that, for a while
at least, the body was attempting to breathe while submerged. If this
is the case, the small blood vessels (capillaries) in the lungs and
brain will have ruptured. Upon physical examination, this is also
apparent in the eyeballs. These types of things will not, in
themselves, indicate a cause of death, but can support the suspicion
that the victim was in the bathtub at the time of death.

Now, lets talk about what electrical shock does to a human body. When
electrocuted, a living normally dies from asphyxiation. This is caused
by the instantaneous cessation of breathing and heart activity. The
effect of the shock can be compounded by moisture, the weather, the
surroundings and how long the body was exposed to the current. In a
situation where the body continues to be exposed to the current long
after death, the resulting damage can be enormous. One of the
characteristics of electrocution is Joule marks (also called Joule
burns). These are entrance and exit wounds caused by the current as it
passes into and out of the body. If electricity does not pass
completely through the body, a serious shock can occur, which may
cause critical localized burns but is not always fatal. In
electrocution, the current passes into and out of body leaving
grayish, puckered wounds on the skin where this occurs. If the current
is a household current, such as a 110, 220 or 240 volt current, the
wounds are not as prominent, but when much higher voltage is the cause
of death, the Joule burns will be tremendous, often causing remarkable
injuries at the point of entry and exit, usually taking on the shape
of the item carrying the current. In addition, high voltage will often
burn through the body, damaging all the tissues through which it
passes, destroying it, and in some cases be especially traumatic,
shattering the bones near the point of exit. It would not be uncommon
then to see someone who had touched a high powered utility line with
his hand to have a fairly gruesome wound to his hand, but a
devastating wound or even an amputation of his foot where the current
exited. This would not be the case with a household current, even
though it would be equally deadly to a person in a bathtub. It should
also be noted that a large current would probably throw the person
away from his present position, making exposure relatively brief,
while an appliance dropped in a bathtub would hold the body captive as
the water itself became a conductor of the electricity, and exposure
time would be much more sustained, perhaps causing large blistered
areas but not the devastating wounds typical of a much greater
current. High voltage exposure might also burn off the hair, or cause
the eyes, torso or limbs to burst. These wounds would not be
considered characteristic of lower voltage electrocution. Higher
voltage typically electrifies jewelry causing significant secondary
burns where these meet the skin. The tissues in the proximity of a
necklace, watch or ring will also be severely damaged in many cases.
This is not characteristic of a lower household current either.

Finally, as the blood in the body coagulates, it tends to run to the
path of least resistance, usually the lowest portion of the body or
those portions that are in contact with a surface. That is to say that
the blood pools up in the back if a body is supine, or in the face,
chest and abdomen if the body is face down. This gravitational pooling
of blood, called post-mortem lividity, is deep purple in color (or
black if the person has been there long enough for the pooled blood to
decompose) and very closely resembles a bruise. If a body if found
sitting slumped in a bathtub for example, upon examination one would
expect to find pronounced lividity in the back, buttocks, rear thighs
and heels of the feet. If this is not present, or lividity if present
in areas that are not in contact with the bathtub, it would give rise
to the notion that the body may have been placed there after the fact.

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curiousk-ga rated this answer:5 out of 5 stars and gave an additional tip of: $10.00
Wow!  Your response was very thorough and gave me a solid indication
of how to edit my story.  Your knowledge and experience were very
valuable, and your answer fascinating to read as well.  Thanks so

Subject: Re: Forensic medicine electrocution
From: aceresearcher-ga on 07 Mar 2003 05:19 PST

Does your plot involve disguising a high-voltage electrocution death
as death by appliance in bathtub, or vice-versa? Depending on which
idea is being used, there are some considerations which may help
advance your plot.


Subject: Re: Forensic medicine electrocution
From: curiousk-ga on 07 Mar 2003 07:37 PST
In response to your question, my plot involves disguising death by
appliance in bathtub as death by high-voltage electrocution.  I'd
appreciate any input that might help make the plot more credible. 
Thanks for your interest.
Subject: Re: Forensic medicine electrocution
From: aceresearcher-ga on 07 Mar 2003 14:20 PST
Greetings, curiousk!

In addition to being an avid reader of murder mysteries and nonfiction
forensic pathology books, I am fortunate enough to be on quite close
speaking terms (most days) with a pathologist, and, out of interest,
we sat discussing your Question for awhile last night.

If you are going to make a habit of killing people off with your
literary endeavors, I recommend that you consider purchasing one of
the professional bibles, Spitz & Fisher's Medicolegal Investigation of
Death. This is an excellent source for details  of various methods of
demise, and in addition to serving as a technical reference for
accuracy, you may find it a good place to get ideas for dispatching
your victims in future tales of mayhem.
Farther on when I attribute quotes to Spitz & Fisher, this is the
source to which I am referring.

Bathtub appliance electrocution disguised as high-voltage
electrocution makes your job a little bit easier than it would be the
other way around. As tutuzdad has said, high-voltage electrocution
nearly always leaves severe burn evidence (as compared to lightning
strikes, which may leave severe burn evidence or barely any evidence
at all).

So, the problems that your murderer is going to face in covering up
his/her crime include:

1) Pruning - live skin, when exposed to water for any length of time,
starts to develop little wrinkles (pruning). If a person dies with the
skin in this state, it will not disappear posthumously. So for your
killer to be successful with their misdirection, the electrocution
death by appliance must occur shortly after entering the water to
avoid prominent pruning artifact after removal of the body from the

2) "Postmortem Lividity (Livor Mortis) - Cherry-pink livor is also
seen in bodies recovered from water... Humidity prevents the escape of
oxygen, allowing for an excess of bright red oxyhemoglobin in the
skin." [Spitz & Fisher, page 24.] So your murderer needs to get that
body out of the water and dried off as soon as the electrocution has
been accomplished, to prevent the livor from being
uncharacteristically pink for an out-of-water, high-voltage
electrocution (unless the body is to be found in a pool of water
underneath a high-voltage power line).

3) Postmortem Lividity (Livor Mortis) - as tutuzdad describes above,
after death the blood in the body will pool and coagulate at the
lowest gravity points in the body. This means that the murderer must
get the body arranged as soon as possible after death in whatever
position they want the body to be found, so that the lividity will
correspond to the position in which the body is discovered (or they
will have to be sure to position the body consistent with the livor
once they bring it to the desired scene of discovery). If the lividity
develops while the body is twisted up in the trunk of a car, this may
be a hard feat to accomplish.

4) Trace evidence - in cases of suspicious or non-natural death, the
forensic investigators will frequently collect minute and microscopic
samples such as hairs, fibers, and dirt. In the case of your hapless
victim, the existence of excessive trace amounts of soap product on
the skin must be avoided. This also means that the murderer will not
want any of their own scalp or facial hair, or fibers from the
bathroom carpet, hanging around where they deposit the body.
Furthermore, in addition to being able to obtain fingerprints from
solid objects such as buttons, eyeglasses, belt buckles, and shoes,
investigators have developed technology to sometimes retrieve
fingerprints from skin, so your murderer had better be wearing gloves
while they're doing their dirty work.

5) Burn evidence - "one-third to one-half of low-voltage
electrocutions have no electrical burns" [Spitz & Fisher, page 521,
footnote credited to Wright, R.K., and Davis, J.H.: "The investigation
of electrical deaths: a report of 220 fatalities", the Journal of
Forensic Science, 25:514, 1980.] This means that your murderer is
going to have to come up with a convincing way to run a high-voltage
current through the body to achieve the appropriate burn marks; just
placing the body beneath a high-voltage power line is not going to do
the trick.

6) Tissue evidence - furthermore, the high-voltage blast to the corpse
needs to take place as soon as possible after death, because gross
[visual] and cellular [microscopic] effects on a live person's tissues
will differ from those on a dead person's tissues. The murderer had
better hope that the medical examiner does not take too many
cellular-level samples, nor examine them too closely. (However, it is
quite likely that in the face of overwhelming evidence of high-voltage
electrocution, a medical examiner will make their determination solely
on the basis of the gross evidence and not examine cellular evidence).

7) Scene evidence - murderers attempting to cover their crime by
moving the body and/or attempting to change the apparent cause of
death frequently screw up in making sure that all the evidence is
consistent with their carefully-constructed scenario. Sometimes
clothing is put on a body improperly, the wrong clothing is put on a
body, or an important article of clothing (such as underwear) is
omitted. Fractures and contusions must be consistent with the size of
the fall, if the body takes one. If the body has supposedly fallen 50
feet, it had better show some serious impact damage. In addition, is
the murderer going to leave the victim's car at the scene of
discovery, or provide some other plausible physical means for the
victim to have arrived there?
8) Psychological evidence - don't forget that if the death is to be
considered an accident, the victim will need some sort of plausible
motivation for being at the scene of the discovery as well (although a
secret assignation with a murderer at the site of the high-voltage
lines would do, if your murderer's goal is merely to cover up just the
method of murder and not the fact that it WAS a murder).

I hope that this information assists you in creating the best murder
mystery possible!


Subject: Re: Forensic medicine electrocution
From: curiousk-ga on 09 Mar 2003 13:00 PST
aceresearcher, thank you to you and your pathologist friend for all
your input.  Also, thanks for the heads up on the reference book.  I
plan to follow-up.  To address the points you raise, my plot does
include removing the victim from the water immediately after
electrocution, so we avoid some of the problems you raised such as
skin pruning.  The murder does dress him and transport him, but the
murder site is close to the site of the high voltage electrocution. 
Although it's impossible to remove all trace evidence, because the
murder occurred in the victim's home, you would expect his leavings in
the bathroom and trace evidence from the home on him to a certain
extent.  On the other hand, if there's no evidence at all, there's no
way to catch the murderer.  The method of high voltage electrocution
is a bit of a locked-room mystery, so I'm not trying to suggest
accident, just draw attention away from home and focus it on work.  He
gets caught up in the transmission lines coming into a substation. 
How?  Well, I can't give it all away!  Thanks again.  I hope you guys
are having as much fun as I am.
Subject: Re: Forensic medicine electrocution
From: tutuzdad-ga on 09 Mar 2003 15:01 PST
A carefully selected rainy night would account for some of the
water-logging, but the wounds caused by the high-voltage after death
might be discernable since the body responds differently to
post-mortem damage than when the victim is alive. To render the victim
unconscious with a bathtub shock, transport him and then electrocute
the dickens out of him at the scene would likley fool anyone.

As for the scene at the house, this would probably be checked even
though nothing pointed to the house as the scene of the crime. A hotel
would do much better. If the victim bled at all in the tub as a result
of the bathtub injuries, this can be fairly easily detected using
sometimes even after cleaning with bleach and often, if left uncleaned
or barely cleaned, years after the crime. A hotel room would take care
of this since it provides the same opportunity is a tub other than his
own - which would certainly be looed at. In addition, an appliance in
the bathtub would short out the house current or at least trip the
breaker switch. This might alert neighbors or cause irreparable
damage, delaying the movement of the body. In a hotel, it might do the
same thing, but no one will know where it is coming from.

Subject: Re: Forensic medicine electrocution
From: curiousk-ga on 10 Mar 2003 09:16 PST
You guys are almost too good.  If I don't leave some evidence, how
will the detective ever catch the murders?
Subject: Re: Forensic medicine electrocution
From: tutuzdad-ga on 10 Mar 2003 11:40 PST
Perhaps a wise coroner or medical examiner might notice that no
natural creasing of the skin occured where elastic bands normally
bundle the outer layer of flesh. This might indicate that the clothes
were placed on the body after death. Adding that the pants pockets
were bundled up against each thigh and hip as opposed to being fully
expanded might also lend suspicion that the clothes were put on by
someone other than the victim.

Perhaps a watch was inadvertently placed on the left wrist of the
left-handed victim by the dressing killer (left handed people normally
place their watch on their right wrist) who was left-handed himself
and did it on instinct.

Perhaps the killer, while dragging the body, badly scraped the back of
the corpse with his metal zipper tab, indicating that the body had
been placed there by someone else. This post-motem "wound" also
corroborates this theory. Laboratory exam of the suspect's pants might
also confirmm this if microscopic tissue from this victim is found on
his zipper tab.

A good way of telling if a body has been dragged is to look at the
heels of their shoes. Killers in a hurry dong carry their victim, they
drag them - especially if they are heavy. But your guy...he's smart.
He takes the shoes off before doing the dragging. What he didn't count
on is that fibers from his vehicle carpet would become inbedded in the
heels of the victim's socks. He replaces the shoes on the victim's
feet at the scene, thereby protecting the trace evidence for future
discovery and the smoking gun against him. Oh, another thing about
shoes...people tie their shoes from "behind" them (while they are on
their feet. A comparision of how the victim's shoes are tied with
shoes at his house that have been slipped off his feet while tied
would also suggest that someone else might have tied his shoes. Search
a bit more about this by looking up "forensic knot" in a search
engine. The info kinda cool if this sort of investigative approach
appeals to you. It can also tell which primary hand the killer uses
(left-handed people have certain common tying characteristics that
right handed people don't have.)

Dragging can also seperate or dislocate the shoulders. This might be
explained by the sudden jolt of high voltage, but not as an
post-mortem injury. If the victim was alive when this happened there
would be bleeding or bruising in the shoulder cups (joints), but
mysteriously, none is found, suggesting the injuries are post-mortem.

Other things might be, hearing aid in the wrong ear, hair parted on
the wrong side, contacts are not in the eyes (victim always wears
them), victim religously takes insulin shots at 7am daily, but no
drugs are found in the body, suggesting that the victim might not have
been killed at noon, but much earlier in the day.

Tie these things in with your story to make them fit other evidence
that point to your killer.

Subject: Re: Forensic medicine electrocution
From: curiousk-ga on 10 Mar 2003 12:41 PST
I've been thinking the past couple of hours about the last set of
comments regarding trace evidence being left by the victim at the
scene of the crime.  I understand your point that it would be
impossible for the murderer to eliminate all evidence, but if the
crime scene is the victim's own bathroom, wouldn't you expect to find
clothing fibers, blood and other leavings there even if no crime had
been committed?  I can see if he bled profusely the killer would have
a problem, but if it's a matter of a scrape as he is dragged out of
the tub, for example, wouldn't it be hard to prove that the blood was
related to the murder?

I did review your other comments, though.  I think you've offered some
great ideas, especially about the shoes. I wonder if it would occur to
an investigator to check some of the other clothing evidence before he
realized that the victim must have been killed before he hit the high
voltage wires and, therefore, that someone is trying to cover up the
actual cause of death.
Subject: Re: Forensic medicine electrocution
From: tutuzdad-ga on 10 Mar 2003 13:52 PST
If the killer shouldn't normally have fibers from the victim on his
person, this would be significant. If the victim is, say, the spouse
of the killer, it might not be. However, if the post-morten scrape on
the victim's back is matched to the tab of killers zipper, or anything
of the killer for that matter, the evidence would be damning. How
could he explain anything in his posession that would have caused an
injury to this body after the death occured? See what I mean? This
places him at the scene of the crime.

As for the clothes and the investigator - well, that depends on how
sharp the investigator is. It would certainly cross "my" mind, if
that's what you are asking. On the other hand, many people have gotten
off scott-free because no one asked the right questions - so yes, it's
possible, but in this age of high-tech training, its probably unlikley
that this would be overlooked.

Subject: Re: Forensic medicine electrocution
From: curiousk-ga on 25 Mar 2003 08:31 PST
Thanks to everyone for your help with my questions regarding my short
story.  I've got a draft complete now and will be shopping it around
for publication.  If those of you who commented would like to read a
draft, I'd be happy to share.  Thanks again.
Subject: Re: Forensic medicine electrocution
From: aceresearcher-ga on 25 Mar 2003 09:00 PST
Thanks for the offer, curiousk!

Researchers are not permitted to have personal contact (such as
e-mail) with Customers; however, if you have your story available on
the web, please post the URL here in a Comment, and I would be
delighted to read it!

Best wishes,


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