Research uncovers new way of pinpointing time of death

Christopher Rogers is researching how cartilage could be used to identify the time that has elapsed since a person has died.

Cartilage could prove useful to investigators as it does not have a blood supply and therefore breaks down more slowly than other tissues.

PhD student Christopher, from the School of Applied Sciences, has been researching how cartilage deteriorates by burying pig trotters in soil to replicate the effect of human burials in shallow graves.

The team left the trotters for varying amounts of time and then tested them.

Christopher found that crystals form on the cartilage after three weeks and start to disappear after six, enabling them to identify the time of death. This result was consistent over the three years of the study and in hundreds of examples.

Christopher, who is due to complete his PhD this year, said: “The findings could be useful in determining how long a person has been dead for, which is an important question in a suspicious death investigation. It could also help to identify a suspect or exonerate someone.

“There has been little research into cartilage degradation post-mortem, but it is useful as it is contained within a trotter so is protected from the effects of the environment. This would be the case for a human body too, as cartilage is protected by muscle and skin.”

The tests included looking at the trotters macroscopically to see if there was any visible changes, such as colour. They also analysed the trotters using a scanning electron microscope, which identified the formation of crystals.

As well as being useful in suspicious death cases, the process could also be used for wildlife forensics, for example investigating allegations of poaching. If a carcass is discovered outside of legitimate circumstances, the analysis could be used to date the time of death.

The findings were presented at the Forensic Research and Teaching conference in Coventry recently.

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