Patterico's Pontifications


Did Haley Oliveaux’s Abrasion Appear Because Her Skin Had Dried Overnight?

Filed under: General — Patterico @ 1:58 am

Following up on my lengthy post yesterday raising some questions about Radley Balko’s article “Manufacturing Guilt?”:

This story at the Jackson Clarion-Ledger sets forth Dr. Hayne’s explanation for the appearance of the abrasion on Haley Oliveaux’s cheek:

Brandon pathologist Steven Hayne, who performed the autopsy in Mississippi, vehemently denies the suspicion that bite-mark expert Dr. Michael West of Hattiesburg did anything to tamper with the child’s cheek to produce the marks. “This is so patently absurd, it’s ludicrous,” Hayne said…

Hayne said the abrasion “was there before. It just became more evident. We see that all the time.”

Balko wrote a post on Friday that bitterly mocked Hayne’s explanation:

If by “we,” Hayne means he and West, he may well be correct. If by “we” he means he and other medical examiners, he’s flat wrong. The experts I consulted with for the article say that abrasions form immediately after they’re inflicted. They don’t appear, or become more apparent, hours or days after death. That can sometimes happen with bruising, but not with an abrasion, which is what we see on Oliveaux’s cheek.

I’m not sure Balko’s experts are the final word on the matter. In my previous post, I noted that, of the three experts consulted by Balko, one had already been hired by the defense, another was a previous critic of West’s who somehow divined from the video that West had intentionally caused the abrasion, and a third was a forensic odontologist who declined to answer a question of mine about the coloring of the abrasion because he isn’t a forensic pathologist.

Meanwhile, I found this, written by Edward O. Uthman, a pathologist who is both a diplomate of the National Board of Medical Examiners, and a diplomate in Anatomic and Clinical Pathology with the American Board of Pathology:

Abrasion is a friction injury removing superficial layers of skin, allowing serum to exude and form a crust. Abrasions may not be visible on wet skin; therefore, an abrasion not apparent when a body is first examined may appear the next day, after the wet body has had a chance to dry out in the morgue refrigerator.

Is this the explanation for the change in appearance of Haley Oliveaux’s cheek? Haley drowned at about 10:30 a.m. on December 18, 1993. The initial footage of her body, showing no abrasion, was filmed that very same evening. The subsequent footage, showing an abrasion on her cheek, was filmed the next day — presumably after the body of Haley, a drowning victim, had a chance to dry out in Dr. Hayne’s morgue refrigerator. [UPDATE: See UPDATE x3 below for skepticism from the doctor himself about this theory.]

I will send Dr. Uthman an e-mail with links to Balko’s article and my post from yesterday, and ask him his thoughts about the appearance of this abrasion. If he responds, I’ll report what he tells me — either way it cuts.

P.S. Balko also says:

Moreover, even giving Hayne and West the benefit of the doubt on the cheek mark that appears between the first and second days of the examination, the last 20 minutes of the video show West repeatedly jamming the dental mold into Oliveaux’s body, over and over, more than 50 times. You’d be hard-pressed to find a single forensics professional—other than Hayne or West—who would argue that this is an acceptable way of analyzing forensic evidence.

Based on the fact that even the prosecution’s expert found their procedure to be improper, my guess is that Balko is right about this. But if you give them the benefit of the doubt on the cheek mark, and merely accuse them of improper procedure, that certainly robs his story of most of its shock value.

If they didn’t create the bite marks, then Balko’s story becomes a piece of evidence suggesting the lack of professionalism of Hayne and West — and that’s valuable, to be sure — but the story is not what was initially claimed. I’m willing to wait for the longer article to make a final judgment, but I remain unconvinced that the darkest implications of Balko’s article are necessarily true.

If you haven’t read my post from yesterday, please read it now.

UPDATE: I should note that I’m not an expert in this area and I don’t claim this is the explanation; I merely note the evidence out there that might support it.

While I’m not an expert, reader Mike K (while not a pathologist) is a court-certified expert in medical matters who has spent a lot of time in autopsies. I commend to you this very interesting comment he left yesterday. Read it all but note particularly this point:

I’ve seen bite marks (usually on living victims) and you can’t produce real bite marks on a dead body with a plaster impression. Of course, someone can call something a bite mark that isn’t. Second, I don’t see how you can create a post-mortem bruise or abrasion that looks real. I haven’t tried it but skin after death is white and slippage can occur fairly early depending on temperature.

Then again, Mike K says in comments below that the “drying out” theory sounds odd to him.

I look forward to hearing from Dr. Uthman.

UPDATE x2: Dr. Uthman has responded. I’m awaiting permission to quote him. He wants to talk further but is skeptical of the “drying” theory.

UDPATE x3: Here is Dr. Uthman’s reply:

Hi, Patrick,

Interesting case. I think I would tend to agree with Balko. For one thing, the examiner shows a gross lack of professionalism in his short narration, when he describes the approximate age of the victim only after checking with his flunky off-camera. A desctiption is supposed to be just that, the observer’s untainted assessment. By asking someone else to tell him the age, he is cheating. It’s a small thing, sure, but no pathologist I know would ever do that.

If the girl had been bitten on the right cheek while alive, there would have been contusions at least (also possibly lacerations/abrasions), and they should have been visible on that video. I can’t see them simply appearing overnight, even if there is drying of the body in the interim.

However, before I go totally out on the limb, I would wonder if someone tampered with the video, reversing the image left-to-right (as in a mirror), and the first part of the video was actually shot from the left side of the body, then reversed to make it look as if it’s from the right. That’s the only plausible way I can think of that would explain the discrepancy without invoking mendacity on the examiner’s part.

Either way, someone is lying, either by tampering with the body or tampering with the video. We just don’t know who.

Thanks to Dr. Uthman for his response.

12 Responses to “Did Haley Oliveaux’s Abrasion Appear Because Her Skin Had Dried Overnight?”

  1. […] posted here: Patterico’s Pontifications » Did Haley Oliveaux’s Abrasion Appear … Categories : Skin Tags : crime, current-events, education, february, gadgets, general, march, […]

    Patterico’s Pontifications » Did Haley Oliveaux’s Abrasion Appear … (577189)

  2. It seems to me (and maybe Mike K can offer some insight as well), that the changes in appearance of an abrasion that I recall (due to aging/evaporation) post mortem had a lot to do with whether or not there were red blood cells present before the evaporation occurred. Ie, in an abrasion that looked “wet” but didn’t evidence any pinkishness or redness, the serous fluid dried to a crusty tan color, but a trace of ‘pink’ (ie, the presence of red blood’) in serous fluid would cause it to dry later with a brick color.

    Based on that observation, I would expect an ante mortem injury that dried to “brick red” color post mortem to be noticeable during examination because of the pinkish exudate required to cause that coloration after the fluid evaporated. An ante mortem injury that produced only serous exudate (ie, clear fluid) could go unnoticed until the exudate dried to a crust.

    Again, I am extremely hesitant to draw any conclusions from the images we’ve seen because I think they are totally unsuited to the discussion at hand (some of the reasons for which Beldar commented on yesterday).

    EW1(SG) (e27928)

  3. On CSI the other day, they discovered an ante-mortem footprint upom exhumation, 3 weeks after the fact. I have no idea what that means. That the video Balko posted was deeply disturbing. Kudos to all of you that can stomach this kind of thing in the quest for truth.

    carlitos (2ed087)

  4. I can’t explain the appearance of a mark like that except as something related to lighting and the angle of the photograph. “Drying out” sounds odd to me. When embalmed bodies dry out, they get to look like bacon slabs but this body, as far as I know, was not embalmed.

    Mike K (2cf494)

  5. Normally, Patterico acts like a douche when he covers a Balko article like this, and when Balko acts like a douche back to him, Patterico’s M.O. is to act like the aggrieved party.

    This time, I found Patterico’s tone to be quite respectful, while simultaneously raising some important questions. Hopefully, Balko will respond civilly and continue to elevate the general tenor of discussion between the two of them.

    Commenter (8199db)

  6. I think that “Commenter” has provided the very definition of “damned by faint praise.”

    Eric Blair (8d54e0)

  7. Eric, I think it might be “douched” by faint praise.

    Have you heard the one about the drunk who offered to buy a drink for an old woman in a bar ? He said, “Ask that old douche bag at the end of the bar what she would like to drink. I’m buying.”

    The bartender asked her what she would like.

    “Vinegar and water,” she said.

    Mike K (2cf494)

  8. Balko should be thankful for this kind of obviously unbiased review of his report. With his passionate level of advocacy, I take him with a grain of salt (though I value his work quite a bit). With this kind of examination, I feel more secure.

    It shouldn’t be impossible to determine if the video is flipped. Either way, Dr Uthman is right… someone is a lying bastard, and with lives at stake that’s reprehensible.

    If (when) it turns out he’s right, Balko will be counting on hard working prosecutors to put the culprit behind bars.

    How many cases did this examiner work on? How many appeals are we looking at? How many killers will go free if he was really a crook? Sickening to think about.

    Joco (4cdfb7)

  9. It would probably be a good idea to ask West what he was doing but I think I might have figured it out. I think he was creating a bite mark and I think that was the purpose of the dental mold. They probably showed real nice photos to the jury of the comparison bite mark West made adjacent to the real bite mark.

    When you think about it, what else would a dental mold be good for except to make bite marks with? If this is the case, then I suppose there are good reasons to make the comparison bite mark right on the body near the original mark rather than on some other medium. It’s nonsense to call it “desecration”. Coroners, embalmers, forensic experts and organ harvesters all have a job to do.

    j curtis (f27f93)

  10. There’s a larger point here that Balko has made in earlier articles that should be obvious from the story and Dr. Uthman’s remarks.

    Bite mark identification off of tissue is sheer quackery, a close cousin of phrenology. There’s no scientific proof for it at all. Anyone who professes to be able to make identifications of this kind to a standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” is not merely lacking in professionalism, but is an out and out fantasist.

    Balko’s writing began coming out at the same time one of my sons was going through the phase of biting playfully, so I was able observe a couple of bites on my own skin within a couple of weeks from the same perpetrator. While of course the amount of pressure involved was minor, the weapons were keen–baby teeth are sharp!

    The reality is that different bite incidents from the same set of the teeth look very different because of angle of attack, the part of the body bitten, and the movement of the victim (me) at the time.

    Short of leaving some dental work or DNA in the wound, there is no validity to this method of identification. That courts have allowed it in is pretty clear demonstration that it is not just defense counsel who get junk science in front of juries.

    Cyrus Sanai (ada6da)

  11. The reality is that different bite incidents from the same set of the teeth look very different because of angle of attack, the part of the body bitten, and the movement of the victim (me) at the time.

    What a bunch of bs. There aren’t various “angles of attack” of bite marks. At least none that the dental mold couldn’t match. The jaw might not be aligned exactly the same with any bite, even though it would tend to be pretty similar every time, but the top teeth will always leave the same mark and the bottom teeth will leave the same mark, barring any change in the condition of the teeth between the bite and the comparison.

    There is no reason to show the tops and bottoms in a position relative to one another, but you could even match any alignment if the mold is hinged to allow for horizontal swivel.

    j curtis (ed6cc3)

  12. […] in starting some kind of “blog feud” with Balko over this.) I had a follow-up post here which featured an expert tentatively supporting Balko’s position (in the […]

    Patterico’s Pontifications » Balko Response Fallout: Verdon Still Suspiciously Silent; Jimmie Duncan’s Lawyer Not So Silent (e4ab32)

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