Washington’s Crime Museum: Analyzing the body in question

09/03/2012 10:37 AM

09/03/2012 10:43 AM

Warning: The scenes described in this piece are not for the queasy. Get grossed out by putrefying corpses? Stop reading here.

Otherwise, step into the basement of the Crime Museum, where Theo Kouts is spouting gruesome facts every few minutes.

“When you die, gases are released,” says the 24-year-old crime-scene-investigation educator. “Insects can actually sense them within minutes of death. Female flies will sense them almost immediately, and they will start going to the body, trying to lay eggs, breaking down the body.”

(I warned you. Put that sandwich down.)

Kouts is leading the museum’s Body Decomposition Lab. The 50-minute course details what processes take place after a person, well, becomes a corpse. Twenty-four students sit at folding tables in a glass-walled “classroom” that’s usually the set of “America’s Most Wanted.”

The lab is one of 10 the museum began offering to the public in mid-June. Launched in 2009 as an educational tool for students, the labs are now open to anyone who wants to attend. Courses range from forensic anthropology to a workshop on blood and DNA. Visitors may buy tickets ahead of time or (if they’re still available) snag them at the museum itself, as did Nancy Goodman of Ridgewood, N.J.

After watching real-life trials on television, the 61-year-old understands that forensic investigators’ jobs are far from easy. “It’s hard to analyze,” she says. “You realize sometimes they don’t know too much.”

She needn’t worry. Although Kouts touches on such familiar subjects as rigor mortis and mummification, it isn’t long before he begins explaining terms that are both befuddling and icky.

•  Livor mortis: When the heart stops beating, capillaries and veins leak blood, which then pools and leaves patterns on the body based on the pull of gravity.
•  Skin slippage: Oh, you guessed it. It’s when skin starts sliding off the body. Stomach churning yet?

After displaying images depicting such states on a flat-screen behind him, Kouts gives a discourse on what, when and how insects eat cadavers. He’s not trying to gross out the group but is explaining how forensic entomology (i.e., the study of insects in a legal application) helps investigators determine the general time of death based on the maturation of fly eggs, larvae and pupae found in or around the body.

Kouts directs everyone to the stapled case files he passed out at the beginning of the course, detailing a scenario of a couple found killed in a cabin. He hands out to each table a series of closed glass vials containing flies in different phases of life. The task is to determine the latest stage of insect development. Investigators then use this information – coupled with the body heat of the victim – to calculate a range for the time of death. “Don’t count the adult fly,” Kouts advises. “Remember, that could have been the first guy there.” After some multiplying and dividing, the class concludes that the fictional pair has been dead from five to eight hours.

With no further questions, the class is theoretically dismissed. As the rest of the participants head out to explore the museum, 22-year-old University of Maryland grad student Katie Reid offers up her thoughts on the lab: “I think it’s interesting to understand how the decomposition of bodies not only tells the story of death,” she says, “but it also tells the story of life.”

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