Death + Crime Death + Technology Death + the Law Death + the Web Death Ethics

“What About Morals?”

A Victim, Her Picture and Facebook
Jim Dwyer, The New York Times (March 29, 2011)

Photo credit: Mark Musarella, Caroline Wimmer/
Photo credit: Mark Musarella, Caroline Wimmer/

An instant was all it took to post the photo.

The photo I am referring to is the one taken by Mark Musarella. In March of 2009, Musarella—a then retired police officer and EMT from Staten Island, NY—snapped a photo of the beaten and strangled body of Caroline Wimmer in her apartment and posted it to his Facebook page. While the photo was taken down fairly quickly, the implications—legal, sociological and moral—are still being sorted out to this day.

While Musarella’s motivations for taking the photo are unclear, his instantaneous ability to share it make it profoundly clear the frightening speed at which lives can be changed forever. Posting the photo to Facebook—even for the short time it was up—allowed the perpetrator, even unintentionally—to re-victimize a family still grieving for their murdered daughter.

The New York Times ran a story this past week about the crime and the Wimmer family’s attempt to sue Facebook to get the gruesome picture back or have it destroyed. In Facebook’s vernacular, the photo is considered “intellectual property”, although a Facebook spokesperson now claims that the photo was removed long ago with no other copies remaining on any of its servers.

But I wonder about that. Here’s a 2009 article from PC World about Facebook’s track record with user’s deleted photos and a more recent article via revealing a 16 month or more lag time. Facebook says it is “working with” its CDN [content delivery network] partner to “significantly reduce the amount of time that backup copies persist.” This is obviously of little comfort to the Wimmer family and precisely why, I imagine, they are suing.

More and more, society is grappling with issues around death and dying in a technological age. Crissy Chriscitiello, Caroline Wimmer’s sister, was quoted in the NY Times as saying, “Everyone is all about technology. “What about morals?” We here at Death Ref have been posting about the intersection of death and the digital life for a while. Take a look at our “death + technology” or “death + the web” categories to view past posts. This June, the Centre for Death & Society (Bath, U.K.) will host a conference titled “Death & Dying in the Digital Age”—at which our very own Dr. John Troyer will present. It will be an engaging conference—hope you can make it.

Death + Crime Death + Technology Death + the Law

Postmortem on Frontline’s Post Mortem

Post Mortem: Death Investigation in America
Frontline, NPR, and Pro Publica (February 01, 2011)

Go Go Frontline. There are moments in this documentary on postmortem examinations in America and the attached medical-legal investigative personnel that made me physically groan.

Out loud.

And then slap my forehead.

None of the dead body images elicited any kind of response from me (shocking, I know). Rather, the interviews with some of the coroners and autopsy investigators were so painful to watch that I wondered if they really knew what kinds of documentaries Frontline makes. One of Frontline’s best investigative reporters, Lowell Bergman, is the on-camera interviewer and his abilities at making interview subjects squirm, especially those who lie or get caught in a certain-kind-of-truth-stretching, are phenomenal.

web-lagos_a_cadaverThe interview with Dr. Frank Minyard, the coroner for New Orleans, Louisiana, is some of the most cringe-worthy television that I have seen in a long time. A number of Death Reference Desk readers might know Dr. Minyard from his interviews about dealing with post-Hurricane Katrina New Orleans. Minyard is a complex figure, to be sure, and he doesn’t end up looking so good in this documentary. Ironically, he has been interviewed in other Frontline pieces, so it’s not as if he had no idea what could happen.

But I digress…

Here, then, is the take away information from Post Mortem. 1.) The overall training, accreditation, and educational standards for American Medical Examiners needs to be uniform, rigorous, and regulated. As with the American funeral industry, for example, the education and licensing requirements are all state-by-state. This means that some states (and regions within states) are far more competent than others. In a nutshell, if you died and your death required a full investigation, then it’s better to die in some states than others.

Frontline produced a map of America which shows what kind(s) of postmortem investigation system(s) exist in each state. Check it out here.

The documentary’s other key point is that medical examiners and investigators need more money to do their work. This hardly comes as a surprise, since everybody wants more money to do their work, but the investigative labor being done involves guilt and innocence. I would always hope that the individuals given the power to provide evidence about either guilt or innocence, had the necessary funding to do the job. In some cases, this is not the case.

So watch this documentary. You can either view it right here or go to the Frontline website (linked at the top of this page).

It’s worth the 52 minutes and provides an opportunity to begin contemplating which American state you would want to die in…

Watch the full episode. See more FRONTLINE.

Burial Death + Crime Death + the Law

Update on 91 Year Old Pennsylvania Woman Keeping Corpses in House

Happy Homecoming for Widow Who Lived with Corpses
Authorities found out and took the embalmed corpses away. She is having a mausoleum built on her property to get them back.
Michael Rubinkam, Associated Press (January 04, 2011)

A quick update on the July story about 91-year-old Jean Stevens in Pennsylvania. Stevens, many people will recall, had been keeping the embalmed bodies of both her husband and twin sister in her home. Pennsylvania officials quickly determined that this was not an appropriate form of final disposition for the bodies and took them away. I wrote about the original case here.

Back in July I suggested that Pennsylvania authorities should think twice about prosecuting Stevens and, instead, help her build a mausoleum for the bodies.

And lo, if that isn’t exactly what happened. The AP explains:

The 91-year-old widow [Jean Stevens] who lived with the embalmed corpses of her husband and twin sister — until authorities found out and took them away — is hopeful they’ll be returned soon.



Workmen at Stevens’ rural property outside the northern Pennsylvania town of Wyalusing have been busy the past few months, erecting a gabled building with gray siding and a white door. It resembles an oversized shed, or a smaller version of Stevens’ detached garage.


In reality, it’s a mausoleum that Stevens intends as the final resting place of her husband of nearly 60 years, James Stevens, and her twin, June Stevens. And authorities have told her it’s the only way she can get them back.

So there you go. Jean Stevens will be re-united with her dead husband and sister, forevermore.

Death + Crime Death + the Web

Stay Classy, AccuQuote and CNN

In the wake of Saturday’s shooting in Arizona, leaving among the dead a federal judge and a 9-year-old, with Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in critical condition among the many wounded, life insurance company AccuQuote reminds surfers of CNN that our family’s future is uncertain (even if widowhood turns women into FOXES… part of the threat of death, perhaps?)… especially with that unknown person of interest still on the loose.

I know how internet advertising works. When not random (though I doubt this is random), it’s keyword correlated, in effort to show viewers relevant content. And life insurance is definitely relevant when a sociopath murders citizens and public servants at a community forum. But c’mon, AccuQuote and CNN. Have some taste and show respect.

…Though I suppose such a censure ignores that media orgs are always selling fear, mayhem and ad space. Ugh.

Our thoughts are with the victims of the tragedy. May we see a shift in political and cultural discourse toward the sane and peaceable.

Death + Crime Death + the Economy Death + the Law

And the Corpse Rides Shotgun Follow-Up

Portrait Emerges of Woman Whose Mummified Body was Found in Car Joseph Serna, Los Angeles Times (October 28, 2010)

Last week I wrote about a California news item which involved the police finding a dead body in a car. A few days ago, the Los Angeles Times did a follow-up piece and as I suspected the emerging story is really sad. Death Ref has run several pieces on Death and the Economy and this most recent article fits the bill. The Times provides this addendum to last week’s story:

The two women met last year at Mile Square Regional Park in Fountain Valley and were unlikely acquaintances. One was a Costa Mesa real estate agent, the other a homeless woman [Signe Margit] who frequented the park. The real estate agent allowed the woman to sleep in her father’s old sedan. But sometime in the last 10 months, the homeless woman died in the car. And for reasons that Costa Mesa police are still trying to determine, the real estate agent decided not to report the woman’s death to authorities. Detectives said she drove the car with the mummifying corpse covered with clothing in the passenger’s seat. She used baking powder to reduce the smell.

I decided to post a follow-up piece since so many dead body stories function as macabre fantasy tales without an actual ending. It seemed only appropriate to end this particular story with a fuller acknowledgement of the hard economic times many people now face.

Death + Crime Death + the Economy Death + the Law

And the Corpse Rides Shotgun

Woman Drove Around With Mummified Body
Salvador Hernandez and Greg Hardesty, The Orange County Register (October 22, 2010)

I am a little surprised that only a few people sent me this recent decomposing-dead-body-in-the-news article. Like so many of the other dead body stories on Death Ref this particular California tale is both macabre and sad. Indeed, it looks as if the economic problems currently afflicting a great many Americans played a role here. We’ve got an entire Death Ref section devoted to just Death + the Economy items. This most recent story also reminds me, a little bit, of the Pennsylvania case from last July.

More than anything, the Orange County prosecutor will have to look at the California statutes which define how and when a corpse is mishandled.

I have a hunch that no legal action will be taken.

And in case anyone is wondering, the smell described by the Police is the result of the body’s decomposing fluids seeping into the car’s interior.

I know I know. Too much information.

Never Stop Learning.

Burial Death + Crime Death + the Law

91 Year Old’s Pennsylvania Corpse Abuse Case is Complicated

Widow Lives with Corpses of Husband, Twin
Michael Rubinkam, The Associated Press (July 05, 2010)


DA: Woman can Keep Corpses in Crypt
Michael Rubinkam, The Associated Press (July 07, 2010)
No charges yet for disinterring her kin

I am going to guess that more than a few people saw this story earlier in the week. It’s a classic dead-bodies-are-so-creepy narrative, which is made all the better because the story involves a totally normal, lovely old woman who kept said corpses in her home.

In this particular case, it was 91-year-old Jean Stevens keeping her dead husband in the garage and her dead sister in the spare bedroom. Here is the real shocker: these situations are not uncommon. They pop up from time-to-time with the usual macabre sense of horror and fascination. Indeed, when I was a child in Cincinnati, OH an older woman who lived in my neighborhood kept her dead father in the house for months. A whole army of children watched as the police went into the house and eventually wheeled out the dead man on a gurney (covered in a sheet), coughing from the smell.

What is slightly different about this Pennsylvania case is this: the dead bodies in question were embalmed, buried in their graves, and then exhumed for Jean Stevens. Who or whom did the exhuming has not been revealed. She then placed the bodies above ground.


corpses-300x225I give Stevens credit for keeping both bodies undiscovered for a number of years. It also looks like Stevens was/is next-of-kin for both her husband and sister, which means that she had/has the legal right to determine final disposition for the dead bodies. She was fine until she had the bodies disinterred and moved to her home. This would be why the District Attorney is saying that Stevens can build a crypt on her property which could then be used for the husband and sister.

The DA is in a tight spot here, too, because he is talking about using Pennsylvania’s Abuse of Corpse law to charge Stevens with a misdemeanor. Here is that law:

Pennsylvania Statute: 5510. Abuse of Corpse.
Except as authorized by law, a person who treats a corpse in a way that he knows would outrage ordinary family sensibilities commits a misdemeanor of the second degree.

In case you are wondering, this is the same law used to charge people with necrophilia related crimes.

Which brings me to the following point. Without a doubt, Stevens improperly exhumed two different dead bodies and then improperly kept both bodies above ground. What I’m not so clear on is whether she outraged ordinary family sensibilities. I say this because it is clear that Jean Stevens committed these incomprehensible acts out of both love and grief. Furthermore, if she’s the last family member on the planet then whose ‘family’ is being outraged? These are philosophical arguments that don’t necessarily stand firm before the law.

That said, I expect that the DA won’t actually pursue misdemeanor charges. If he’s smart, he’ll help Stevens raise money for the crypt.

Macabre as this story initially sounds, it’s a useful lesson on how the law sees death in contradistinction to how family members do the same. Besides it not nearly as gruesome as this other Pennsylvania corpse story.

Alas, and unfortunately, most of the reporting uses the easiest hooks and angles. The WNET-TV nightly news video at the top is a perfect example.

Death + Art / Architecture Death + Crime Death Ethics

Charles Bowden on Juarez

Dreamland: The Way out of Juarez
On The Media (June 4, 2010)

Earlier this week I wrote about the drug-cartel murders in Juarez, Mexico, and mentioned Charles Bowden, a journalist who has been covering the situation for over a decade. He recently spoke with On The Media about a new book, Dreamland: The Way Out of Juarez, a mix of journalism and evocative, literary expression with haunting illustrations by Alice Leora Briggs.

They also discuss corruption in both the Mexican and U.S. governments for allowing the cartel to continue, along with criticism of the American press for poor coverage on the topic. Do have a listen — with his gravelly voice and poetic language, Bowden is a trip. A few quotes from the podcast:

“The city is dying. Violence isn’t an incident anymore, it’s the actual fabric of life, it’s part of basic transactions there.”


“Mexico is collapsing. This is an exodus of human beings. This is a far more significant event for the future of the United States than the war in Iraq.”


“I’ve been trying to leave the border for years, because it’s damaging to me. Because I’m tired of dead people. But I haven’t been able to make it. I actually am by some standards a normal person. I feed birds. I garden. I like to cook. I don’t need corpses. … The way I was raised, you can’t know this kind of slaughter is going on… and pretend it’s not happening.”

Death + Crime

Librarian in New Mexico Collates Murders in Juarez

A Gruesome Reckoning: Librarian Sifts Mexican Press to Tally Drug-Cartel-Related Killings in Juárez
Ana Campoy, Wall Street Journal (June 15, 2010)

With 2,633 homicides in 2009, murder in Juarez, Mexico, is out of control. Much of the violence is related to drug trafficking, accounting for gang on gang and police killings. But civilians are attacked, too, in displays of intimidation, or are simply caught in the crossfire or randomly targeted, like the pregnant U.S. consulate worker and her husband last March. To get a sense of the violence and corruption, listen to this chilling interview with Charles Bowden, a journalist who has covered Juarez for fifteen years and author of Murder City: Ciudad Juarez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields.

Due to the complexity of determining when a murder, especially a seemingly random one, is related to the drug cartel — compounded by national outrage and international scrutiny that may encourage Mexican authorities to obfuscate the facts — there are no official counts of drug-related murder. This has led researchers, media organizations, watchdog groups and others to keep their own tallies, but this quickly becomes overwhelming because the killings are happening constantly.

Enter librarian Molly Molloy of New Mexico State University. She runs the Frontera List, a collection of newspaper articles about issues along the U.S.–Mexico border. More importantly, she tracks the Mexican media for reports of drug-trade-related murder, keeps them in a searchable database and provides free daily updates and analysis to researchers, journalists, members of Congress, human-rights observers, and more.

While Molloy’s findings contribute to current U.S. news reports, academic studies and investigative journalism, including Charles Bowden’s book Murder City, she also hopes to develop an archive at her university’s library for future scholars that will be useful for analyzing trends over time. Her work has also been essential in unexpected ways, such as providing evidence of fear and distress for a refugee seeking U.S. asylum.

From the Wall Street Journal article:

Ms. Molloy said her work also could help the refugees. Earlier this year, a lawyer representing a person seeking U.S. residency asked Ms. Molloy for documentation of a body—and a severed head—deposited near the client’s home. Ms. Molloy found an article on the incident by searching her database for “decapitated.”

The client’s visa was approved.

As a librarian, I’m naturally heartened and enthused by the idea of a concerned librarian–researcher mending a crucial information gap. But this situation has other fascinating information facets, namely, the authority to name and classify.

What constitutes death is transparent, and murder, close to it. But less evident is defining what is and is not related to drug trafficking, as well as attaching meaning to what this entails (as a significant market for Mexican drugs, is not the United States complicit?). The power seems to be shifting hands: from the Mexican government and police to journalists on the ground to a diligent librarian in New Mexico observing, dissecting and freeing information.

Death + Biology Death + Crime

Murder?! The Maggots Are on It

Crime Scene Insects
BBC World Service (June 11, 2010)

This episode of BBC Documentaries explores forensic entomology: “the investigation of insects recovered from crime scenes and corpses.” Guests include Amoret Whitaker of the Natural History Museum in London, who studies the flies and maggots that congregate on corpses to find clues about the time and nature of death. She also analyzes the decomposition of pigs, a “good model for humans.”

They also speak with Bill Bass, anthropologist at the Body Farm, a facility at the University of Tennessee for researching the decomposition of bodies. According to Professor Bass, “I went to the Dean in November of ’71 and I said, ‘Dean, I need some land to put dead bodies on.’ ” And land he did receive. (John posted last fall about the Body Farm needing to refuse unclaimed bodies because of the growing surplus resulting from the poor economy… yikes!)

Have a listen — 22.5 minutes of homicide-solving maggots is bound to brighten any day.

Death + Crime Death + Popular Culture Death + the Law Death Ethics Suicide

Kevorkian Revisited

Independent Minds: Dr. Jack Kevorkian (Listen to the audio)

Heard an interesting public radio broadcast this evening. It’s a series titled “Independent Minds” and tonight’s profile featured Dr. Jack Kevorkian. The show illuminates, through interviews, audio clips and sound bites, the life of the controversial “Dr. Death” and attempts to separate and dissect the man and the myth.

Want more Jack? Check out trailers for the upcoming HBO film You Don’t Know Jack, starring Al Pacino as Kevorkian. Directed by Barry Levinson, it also stars Susan Sarandon, John Goodman and Brenda Vaccaro. I don’t have cable and it could be a while before it shows up on Netflix. So if anyone catches it, by all means let us know and share your thoughts!

Death + Crime Death + the Law

Dying by the Numbers in Europe

Who Dies of What in Europe Before the Age of 65
Elodie Cayotte and Hartmut Buchow, Eurostat (2009)

On the heels of last week’s post about mortality rates in New York City, comes this hot hot hot report on how Europeans are dying. Special thanks to my good friend Gauti for sending it along.

The usual postmortem causing suspects are covered: heart disease, lung cancer, alcohol related deaths, suicide, transport accidents, cervical cancer, and AIDS. I read this report, in a bar, while drinking a pint of beer (I live in England…) which seems fitting given the high number of alcohol related deaths in the UK. Indeed, the report sums up overall EU mortality rates this way:

The countries with very low mortality below age 65 are Italy, Switzerland, Malta, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, the Netherlands and to a lesser extent Spain. Within the United Kingdom, there is a strikingly large north-south division that encompasses the whole range of EU mortality. A number of former industrial areas with high mortality are found in Northern England and the north- east of France.

And let me tell you, the North-South divide in England is intense. A person might as well just give up the ghost if he or she lives north of the Midlands. The difference in life expectancy between Southern England (where I live in lovely Bath) and the North is almost seven years. Across the board, in every category, death seems to lurk at every turn in Northern UK regions. It seems that television ads have become extremely important in this public health dilemma and I found the following binge drinking gems, per usual, on YouTube.