Water-Related Death Investigation: Part 1
Written by Kevin L. Erskine   

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An Introduction to
Water-Related Death Investigation


Note: This article is Part One in a three-part series on water-related death investigation. Part Two will discuss how to determine the accuracy of information obtained at the scene and Part Three will cover how to recognize “red-flag indicators” of foul play.



Figure 1 - Travel abrasions

Figure 2 - Ocular changes: Petechiae

Figure 3 - Ocular changes: Tache noire

Figure 4 - Foam column / foam cone

Figure 5 - Lividity

Figure 6 - Contact lividity

ALL TOO OFTEN, personnel responding to a water-related death consider it an accident before they even arrive on scene. Our culture almost always perceives drowning as accidental. Responding personnel often feel unprepared due to the lack of specialized training, the unavailability of a qualified dive team, the responsibilities of controlling on-lookers, and the need to obtain witness accounts of the incident. Complicating matters further, the officer may be required to give a death notification to family members who are present at the scene.

An added problem is that drowning is one of the most difficult causes of death to determine for a pathologist. Drowning as a cause of death is only determined after a meticulous examination with a complete autopsy and after all other causes of death have been ruled out.

Furthermore, determining that a drowning was a homicide is extremely difficult mainly because one must first overcome that preconceived notion that all drowning incidents are accidents. At the scene of a typical homicide, the evidence of foul play is usually obvious, but a water-related incident often veils the underlying circumstances. All too often, patrol officers responding to the scene of a drowning do not possess even the basic training required to process the scene properly. Larger departments have heavy caseloads, and “accidents” allow them to move forward with other cases. Likewise, smaller departments do not have the extra manpower necessary to conduct a proper investigation. More investigative work is typically done for a motor-vehicle accident than that of a water-related death. To rule out foul play, it must first be considered.

One high-profile case provides an excellent example of how our culture is quick to accept that drowning deaths are inherently accidental:

On October 25, 1994, in Union, South Carolina, Susan Smith claimed a black male carjacked her vehicle and drove off with her two sons in the backseat. A nine-day search ensued for her sons and her car. On December 12, 1994, Susan Smith was charged with two counts of first-degree murder in connection with the drowning deaths of her two sons. During her trial, she claimed she was suicidal and drove to John D. Long Lake with the intent of taking her own life. But instead, she pulled her car onto the boat ramp with her two sons strapped into their car seats, got out, and let her car roll into the water with her sons still inside. She was found guilty of two counts of murder. Union County Sheriff Howard Wells stated that there was initially such a public outpouring of sympathy for Smith that no one wanted to believe that a mother could intentionally kill her own sons by driving her car into the lake.

The death investigation of bodies found in or near water is a collaborated effort between the law-enforcement agency of jurisdiction and the forensic pathologist. It is imperative that the responding investigators obtain the most accurate information possible. Specialized training in water-related deaths will assist the investigator in conducting an on-scene body assessment; determining the accuracy of information obtained at the scene; and recognizing “red-flag indicators” of foul play.

On-scene body assessment

A lack of specialized law-enforcement training may limit the amount of evidence available to the pathologist to determine the cause of death. This may lead all those involved to an erroneous conclusion. Therefore, upon location and recovery of a body in or near the water, an on-scene body assessment is mandatory. Protective gloves should be worn during the examination that, with practice, can be conducted within a matter of a few minutes. The on-scene body assessment will consist of the following observations:

Postmortem wandering—Once the body of a drowning victim lands on the bottom of the waterway, it will not move (even in the strongest of currents) until refloat begins. As the body begins to decompose, gases will build up inside the body cavity, causing it to become buoyant. As the body starts to lift from the bottom, water current will move the body along the bottom, causing characteristic injuries on specific parts of the body, including the forehead, nose, elbows, backs of the hands, knees, and tops of the feet. These injuries are called travel abrasions and will appear as superficial scrapes on the skin. Travel abrasions may indicate the body has moved from its original water-entry location (Figure 1).

Ocular (eye) changes—The investigator can observe any ocular changes by simply placing the index finger upon the eyelid and the thumb below the eye and spreading the eye open. The investigator should observe the white portion of the eye, called the sclera, as well as the pink, glisten-ing portion of skin above and below the eyeball, referred to as the conjunctiva. Both the sclera and conjunctiva should be checked for the following:

1) Petechiae—Tiny red or brownish-red spots (some as small as a pin prick or as large as a pea). There may be one or multiple spots visible. These spots are caused by ruptured blood vessels within the eye, caused mainly by increased pressure on the carotid artery (Figure 2).

2) Tache noire—This is the drying of the sclera left exposed by partially opened eyes. Tache noire will appear as a horizontal line across the sclera, usually brownish in color. After death, as the eyes begin to dry, the eyelids will begin to recess (spread apart), causing the sclera to be exposed to air. When a person drowns, their body will take a position where the head, arms and legs are face down in the water. Tache noir should not be found in a body recovered from water unless extenuating circumstances are present which would have caused the eyeball to be exposed to air (Figure 3).

3) Corneal opacity—This change is accelerated by exposure of the eyes to air. A thin, whitish film will be present over the eyeball, giving the eye a frosted-glass appearance.

Foam column/foam cone—A white or pinkish foam exuding from the mouth and/or the nose. The foam is a mixture of water, air, surfactant, and blood located within the lungs. Even though not immediately apparent, it may become noticeable when the victim is moved (Figure 4).

Rigor mortis—Noticeable as a stiffening of the limbs and joints. It is more readily evident in the smaller muscle groups first, such as the muscles of the jaw, fingers, toes, wrists and ankles. It then becomes noticeable in the larger muscle groups such as the elbows, knees, and neck. It becomes fully fixed in six to 12 hours. After the fully fixed stage, it will work its way out of the body in the same order, first from the smaller muscles and then the larger muscles. By the time rigor is fully established in the larger muscles, it may already be less evident in the smaller muscles, which indicates that rigor is leaving the body. The whole process of rigor will take from 24 to 36 hours. This process may assist the pathologist in determining time of death.

Livor mortis (lividity)—Pooling of blood in the lower parts of the body will appear as red, blue, or purple discoloration under the skin. Lividity is fixed in 12 to 18 hours. If the body is moved before lividity is fixed, the lividity will re-establish in the lower parts of the body. Lividity may assist in establishing body position prior to and upon death (Figure 5). Another condition is contact lividity or patterned lividity. This condition, unlike lividity, will appear white in color and is caused by the body being pressed against an object. The pressure of the object on the tissue vacates the blood from that region, often taking on the appearance of the object causing the pressure (Figure 6).

Algor mortis—Body cooling is determined by inserting a thermometer into the body cavity of the deceased. This activity is not usually done by law enforcement and therefore will not be covered in this article.

Physical wounding—Any type of wounding of the body should be noted, including incised wounds, lacerated wounds, broken bones, or bruising. The notation of the appearance and location of these injuries is important and may assist the pathologist in determining the time frame in which the body sustained the wounds. Notation of wounding must be done prior to any movement of the body for recovery. This is because, in some cases, the body can be wounded during recovery due to environmental conditions such as poor weather and rough terrain. The time frames of body wounding are: antemortem (before death), postmortem (after death), and agonal (at time of death). Positioning of some injuries may indicate the time when they were sustained. Propeller injuries before death would be found on the hands, abdomen, and legs since the victim would be upright in the water, whereas propeller injuries across the shoulders, back of the head and back would indicate postmortem wounding, since the body would be floating in the facedown position. Sharp incised wounds on the palmar region of the hands and outer portion of the forearms may indicate defensive wounds from the victim warding off an attack, whereas injuries to the back of the hands may indicate travel abrasions or other post-mortem injury from the body coming in contact with objects in the water.

Anthropophagy (animal/fish feeding)—May include insect life feeding on the body tissue. Fish feeding will usually appear as jagged wounding to the lips, ears, tip of the nose, fingertips, and eyelids. Feeding may also be present at the site of any pre-existing wounds. It will appear as though the flesh has been eaten away. Animal feeding may also result in scattered body parts that may complicate the recovery process.

Maggots—Maggots are the larval form of flies. Flies lay their eggs on parts of the body exposed to air. Maggots are oval, tan-white creatures that resemble seeds or rice. Egg-laying occurs within one to two hours of death. Maggots should be collected and submitted to a forensic entomologist. The entomologist may assist in determining time of death, based on the larval stage of the maggot. The geographical origin of the body may also be determined based on specific maggots occupying a certain region of the area. Toxicology may also be conducted on the maggots when sufficient body mass is not present. In addition, human DNA can also be recovered from maggots, potentially aiding in identification of the deceased.

Decomposition—Stages of decomposition should be noted. In the beginning stages of decomposition, between 12 and 24 hours, the skin color will change from a bluish hue to almost green, most notable in the area of the abdomen. Within 24 to 36 hours, the skin will become dark green, red, or dark purple and there may be drying of exposed parts of the body. By 36 to 48 hours, marbling has developed and the body will begin to swell, giving a bloated appearance. Areas of normally pliable, loose skin such as the lips, face, and scrotum become drastically swollen. The eyeballs, lips, abdomen, and scrotum may become greatly distended and protrude. Significant decomposition with bloating and discoloration may make determination of race, body build, and identification difficult, if not impossible. Bodies submerged for extended periods of time (weeks to months) may appear to be covered with a grayish, waxy, soap-like substance called adipocere. The formation of adipocere may actually retard further decomposition and preserve interior organs.

Skin slippage—By four to seven days, or sometimes as early as two to three days, skin slippage may be apparent anywhere on the body. The skin, including the fingernails and toenails, loosens and allows removal of the skin in its entirety, much like the removal of a sock or glove. This may be most notable on the hands and feet. The entire scalp, including the hair, will become partially or completely detached.

An on-scene body-assessment checklist will allow the investigator to record observations made during the assessment and accurately document injuries by using the appropriate supplement form. (On-scene body-assessment forms can be obtained from Water-Related Death Investigation: Practical Methods and Forensic Applications, Appendix C.)

For More Information

The book Water-Related Death Investigation: Practical Methods and Forensic Applications by Erica J. Armstrong and Kevin L. Erskine is available from CRC Press at: www.crcpress.com

About the Author

Officer Kevin Erskine began his career with the Cleveland Lakefront State Park Police in 1986. In 1998, he developed the only State of Ohio dive team, and remains the dive-team coordinator today. In 2000, he co-developed the Children’s Ice Drown-ing Prevention Workshop that teaches children self-rescue techniques in the event of an ice accident. In 2005, he developed the Master Water-Related Death Investigator curriculum for the Ohio Peace Officer’s Training Academy (OPOTA) and currently teaches four of the required courses. He is an OPOTA-certified Master Criminal Investigator who has earned numerous life-saving awards for rescues of drowning victims in the waters of Lake Erie. He is currently seeking legislation to increase the Ohio Basic Police Academy hours to include a segment on water-related death awareness. He was recognized as a Citizen of the Year by Cleveland Fire Department in 2006 for the rescue of an active drowning victim within his jurisdictional waters. In 2010, he co-authored the reference book, Water-Related Death Investigation: Practical Methods and Forensic Applications (CRC Press). He can be reached at: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

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