What Robert Wone Still May Be Able To Tell Us
If forensics teaches anything it’s that human bodies have stories to tell, sometimes long after life has left. We just have to know what questions to ask and be listening.
In this case, barring exhumation, only three cc’s of blood is all that physically remains of Robert. Many questions could be asked of this blood, but because the amount is small, only a few will make the cut and the blood will likely be used up.
Which leads to the question: just what might still be detectable in his blood, and what should be at the top of the testing priority list? Perhaps there will be resolution on this by the time of the September 11 status hearing, the next date on the case’s calendar.
Judge Weisberg ordered testing on the remaining 3cc’s of Robert’s blood, telling the Government and defense teams to come to agreement on what drugs to test for. “The ‘caines,” Weisberg suggested, which struck us as an “I Love the ’80’s” flashback.
Leading us to wonder: what does the defense team know that we, prosecutors and Weisberg do not?
Finding toxins in the human body isn’t as clear-cut as it might seem. There are literally hundreds of agents that can make a person sick, debilitated, incapacitated or worse. You can’t test for everything; instead M.E.’s try to focus in on the most likely candidates given the totality of evidence.
Are the lips discolored? Perhaps hydrocholoric acid. Does the hair fall out in clumps? Thallium might be a candidate. Is the body rigid or loose? Any internal bleeding or organ damage? Faint smell of almonds – cyanide might be to blame. Strong smell of garlic? Selenium is suspect.
Different methods are used to detect different types of toxins. Metal-based poisons such as arsenic, mercury and thallium leave clear residues in the hair and nails behind that can be tested long after death. In a classic cold case, an arctic explorer buried for 100 years in Greenland was tested, successfully, for arsenic in his hair and nails, yielding a positive result. (His case also illustrates another forensic truth: sometimes a positive test result may not yield a definitive diagnosis. Only when combined with other observed factors does the likely answer emerge.)
Plant-based alkaloide poisons like strychnine, atropine, fentanyl digitoxin and cyanide can be trickier to find, though not impossible. Sometimes the poison itself breaks down or is metabolyzed, but leaves footprints in new compounds; for example succinlycholine (an agent that paralyzes muscles and can stop breathing in large doses) breaks down very quickly, but leaves detectable levels of succinlymoncholine in its place.
Carbon monoxide can be tricky to administer in open spaces; antifreeze (ethylene glycol) while certainly fatal, is hard to administer in large doses (people tend to vomit it up.)
Powerful tools such as chromatography and mass spectrometry greatly expand what might be found – but often with the most volatile compounds only within a limited period. Cocaine can rapidly hydrolyze in unpreserved blood, and Ketamine dissipates even faster.
What will the 3 cc’s of Robert’s blood tell us in the coming weeks, or will it go the way of the missing BlackBerry – of little help to either the prosecution or defense, and of little help in explaining what happened that evening?
-posted by Doug