The Second Case: The Slumbering Wife
To forensics students, the second and third year is a nightmare. As forensics students, we must complete the four-year medical theory class in three years. Even though I was rather diligent in my studies, we were bombarded with physiology, biochemistry, pathology, parasitic insects, and other heavy-duty classes one after another in our sophomore year. I couldn’t hang on and got two red marks for both biochemistry and parasites. Thus, in the summer of sophomore year, I could only stay at home to review and couldn’t go back to intern. It was not until the summer of junior year that I could once again come back to the Forensics Department.
Though the work of medical examiners wasn’t as exciting as I thought it would be. Other than murder cases where we come to the forefront, most of our time was spent checking endless amounts of injuries and other causes of (mostly) normal deaths.
That was why they label those cases as ‘abnormal cases (incidents) of death’, because after the preliminary check, they had to join the investigation and do on-site analyses. They had to make sure it was a homicide first. If it was a murder case, they call it a case and further examination and dissection was required. They must also participate in the detective investigation. If it was not a murder case, they call it an event and the body is given to the family to take care of. If an event was mistaken as a case, it would be a huge waste of police work and energy. When the investigation can’t go on anymore and a re-examination of the case leads to the discovery of an error, the medical examiners would be pointed at. On the contrary, if a case was mistaken as an event, it would allow the culprit to escape undetected. There were more than 10,000 abnormal cases (incidents) of death in our province per year. Every case needed two medical examiners so on average, each medical examiner needs to look at over 70 cases per year. Of course, this did not include examinations of traffic accidents.
The first day I returned to the department was an endlessly busy day. I had just stepped through the office door for less than 5 minutes when the phone rang.
“A resident of the New Green community suddenly passed away in the middle of the night. Please come and check the scene.” It was a phone call from the police station.
“Are there any abnormalities with the preliminary inspection?” Brother Sheng Bing asked.
“No abnormalities reported. The scene was locked, it should be a sudden death.” The policeman laughed out loud. Obviously, this abnormal case of death didn’t warrant much importance.
This neighborhood was close to the Forensics Department so we quickly arrived at the scene.
The scene was located at the fifth floor of the building, a two-bedroom apartment for a family of three. The husband was constantly ill and was laid off, occasionally part-timing at a small workshop nearby. The wife— the deceased— was extremely ugly, had no job, and earned some small change by collecting recyclables. Both people earned very little income, barely enough to live. They had a cute seven-year-old boy.
When we arrived at the scene, we saw that they didn’t take strict protective measures. Inspector Guo was currently inspecting the door lock. Two officers as well as the deceased’s husband and child were sitting in the living room. The husband wiped his tears as he softly said, “Why did you just leave us like this? What are we going to do now that you’re gone?” The son sat by his side, his face chalk white, less from sadness than fright. He was too young and probably couldn’t understand the sorrow of losing a loved one.
Brother Sheng Bing wasn’t in a hurry to examine the scene. Instead, he dragged a police officer outside the door and interrogated him about the first inspection.
“How was the preliminary inspection?”
“Everything’s normal. We rushed over right away after receiving the report in the morning and questioned the husband and child separately. The man claimed he was sleeping in the bedroom with the child. After washing up, he prepared to send his child off to school and called for his wife. However, no matter how much he screamed, there was no response. When he went over to check, she was already dead.” The policeman wiped his sweat and continued, “The child also confirmed his father slept with him.”
“Everything in the house is fine? Are you absolutely sure no one came in?” Brother Sheng Bing looked at the policeman and asked.
The policeman straightened his body and responded, “Absolutely sure. The door is locked from the inside and there are no traces of tampering. We also checked the windows; they are securely locked and in good condition. We are sure this is a locked room case.”
“How does the couple feel about each other usually?” Brother Sheng Bing was still uncertain.
“These two are the model couple in my district! Their feelings are so strong I have no words.” The policeman turned into a chatterbox, “The man is in poor health and lived in the Workers’ Hospital just a while ago. He could no longer support the treatment economically-wise after a few weeks and asked to be discharged himself. Because the hospital is six or seven kilometers away, and they couldn’t bear to pay for a taxi, the wife carried him back the whole way! What a good woman!”
“So you mean we can rule out the possibility of the husband killing the wife?” Sheng Bing asked.
“Yes, I don’t think it is him. The neighbors all know about them and they’ve never heard them fight before. They also didn’t find any signs of an affair. Furthermore, look at the man’s body and the woman’s body. He would need to be a pro boxer,” the policeman confidently said.
Brother Sheng Bing’s expression relaxed quite a bit. He put on his gloves and walked into the crime scene: the bedroom.
The blinds were naturally drawn. The lighting was also poor and quite dim. You could only faintly tell the status of the room through the outlines of the furniture. Even though the furniture was worn out, it was neatly arranged. It seemed that the deceased was someone who liked being orderly. There was no trace of a scuffle and everything seemed very calm. There was a big bed in the middle of the room, the bamboo sheets were laid out neatly while the deceased lay on top of it with a towel for a blanket. Her expression was serene. Sheng Bing gently lifted the blinds and checked the windows. He confirmed that they were locked and shut. “Isn’t it hot sleeping on such a warm day without the window open?” I muttered. Brother Sheng Bing looked back at me and smiled, “Very good! We need to carry questions with us as we inspect the crime scene.”
The procedure for inspections was from top to bottom, outside to inside. Brother Sheng Bing carefully began the preliminary inspection.
“There are obvious spots in the deceased’s eyes with bleeding. Her lips are purple, fingernails are purple. Signs of suffocation are obvious,” Brother Sheng Bing said while I took notes.
“Suffocation?” the policeman standing on the side was surprised and suddenly became nervous.
“Many diseases can lead to suffocation because they typically lead to respiratory or circulatory failures and death through hypoxia or asphyxia.” Before this, I had already seen a few sudden death scenes so even though I haven’t completed my professional studies, I could still grasp these general concepts.
“There is no damage to the nose and mouth. No damage or bleeding in the neck,” Brother Sheng Bing continued to check.
“Do you see it? Her nose and neck aren’t injured, so why did she suffocate to death? It means that this came from a disease or illness. It seems your pre-check was correct: it is definitely a sudden death,” I proudly said to the policeman.
Brother Sheng Bing waved his hand at me, indicating for me to write more and speak less. I embarrassedly shut my mouth.
Brother Sheng Bing picked up the deceased’s clothes, “There is no fatal injury in the chest area or abdomen…” He suddenly froze halfway through and stared at the deceased for a long while. He pressed on the sternum of the deceased and fell into contemplation.
I saw Brother Sheng Bing’s strange behavior and also checked out the area. There was an obvious area of pale skin on the deceased’s chest. Although I spotted this abnormal skin color change, I didn’t understand what it could indicate. I looked at Brother Sheng Bing with confusion.
Unexpectedly, Brother Sheng Bing turned around and began packing up. I sighed in relief and thought, ‘That’s right, what could it possibly mean? The professor told us before to grasp the big idea and let go of the small details. Signs of death vary from person to person, so medical examiners can’t allow a small detail to change their analysis of the whole situation. There was no damage to both the nose and neck of the deceased, so mechanical suffocation can be crossed out. Therefore, the only possibility is a sudden death.’ Thinking up to this point, I was confident in my deduction.
By this time, Brother Sheng Bing already finished packing up. He took off his gloves and walked to the living room with the toolbox. The deceased’s husband lifted his red eyes to glance at us, and then lowered his head once again and continued to cry.
“You’ve finished? Do you want us to contact the funeral home to take the body?” the police asked.
Brother Sheng Bing glared at the deceased’s husband and coldly said, “Take the body to the funeral home. We need to inspect further.”
Everyone present, including me, was stunned.
“Wasn’t it… a sudden death? You still need to dissect the body?” The police sent from the police station also had their doubts. As if they couldn’t believe their ears, they couldn’t help but ask.
“No! I don’t agree to the dissection! I can’t bear to let her get cut open after dying!” the husband of the deceased suddenly thunderously yelled, shocking the child next to him.
“This… if the family doesn’t agree to it, we can’t dissect it?” The policeman sent from the station pulled Sheng Bing over and quietly asked, “Is there a problem? Do you need us to inspect further?”
“The Criminal Procedure Law has a provision: in the case of suspicion of murder, it is our examiners’ right whether to dissect the body of the deceased or not.” Brother Sheng Bing laid it out clearly.
“Then what about this man?” the policeman hurriedly asked.
“Just control him for now.”
We turned and left, the screams of the deceased’s husband roaring behind them, “I dare you to dissect her! I’ll sue you!”
On the way to the funeral home, I tentatively questioned, “Was I wrong? It’s not a sudden death?”
“As a medical examiner, the greatest taboo is to rely on preconceived notions.” Brother Sheng Bing slowly said, “That would greatly affect our judgement as preconceptions would blind our eyes.”
My face turned blue and red. Regardless of whether or not my judgement of the victim’s death was right or wrong, I admit that I had fallen for my presumptions. No one dared to say that just because a couple’s feelings were good, there wouldn’t be a murder incident.
“In addition, under the fact that we have yet to complete an autopsy, we cannot make a statement easily.” Brother Sheng Bing continued, “If we say so, others would believe that that is our conclusion. Without adequate support, conclusions are prone to errors. Thus, in future work, you must control your mouth.”
“But, she truly meets the criteria for a sudden death. Is it just because of that pale area on her chest?” I was slightly unconvinced.
“You’ll know in a little while, don’t worry.”
We returned to the department to get the dissection equipment and then drove to the funeral home. When we came to the autopsy room, the corpse had also arrived.
“The man has already been brought in for questioning. The child was left with one of their relatives to be looked after,” the police from the station reported. The police station was very efficient.
Brother Sheng Bing handed me a gown and a pair of gloves, “According to the plan, today it’s your turn.”
Even though I was very nervous, I still calmly took that pale blue surgical gown. I awkwardly put on the gown and felt incomparably holy when I pulled on the gloves.
As an assistant, I tried my hardest to not let others notice that my hands holding the scalpel and hemostat were trembling slightly.
We carefully inspected the deceased’s mouth, teeth, and even used the scalpel to slice apart the suspiciously colored gums. However, no trace of bleeding was found. Then we carefully examined the neck of the deceased, the skin showed no signs of trauma. “This is probably not mechanical suffocation.” I shook my head.
“Let’s look at the head first today.” Brother Sheng Bing decided to change the order of dissection, “You do it.” Brother Sheng Bing leaned his body back, implying for me to move my scalpel.
Shaving off hair was a truly difficult task, and it took a long time before I could get rid of the deceased’s hair. Following what I learned from the dissection last time, I started from behind the left ear, cutting with a trembling scalpel to behind the right ear. The sound of the scalpel slicing through was extremely grating on the ears. After flipping the scalp and exposing the skull, Brother Sheng Bing used the newly-bought electric craniotomy drill to easily remove the bone. It was just as I imagined: the brain tissue of the deceased wasn’t damaged. After removing the brain and cleaning out the dura mater, the complete base of the skull was exposed.
Brother Sheng Bing carefully examined the base of the skull, “It really was so. Come and see, what’s wrong with the base?” Listening to Brother Sheng Bing say as such, I looked at it, “No… No abnormalities. No fractures.”
“The protrusions on both sides of the base are the petrous part of the temporal bone.” Brother Sheng Bing pointed at the place bone with the hemostat, “Here, the lower part of the skull connects to the inner ear. If she was smothered or drowned, the air pressure in the inner ear would change, leading to bleeding in the petrous part of the temporal bone. If disease caused a sudden death, there would be no change in the air pressure and the inner ear wouldn’t bleed.”
I nodded. I was first in the class on anatomy and autopsy. This theory of hemorrhage in the petrous part of the temporal bone was also easy to understand. Looking at the deceased’s black petrous part, I said, “Yes, this person had obvious bleeding at the at the petrous part. Otherwise, it would be white and not black.”
Brother Sheng Bing nodded approvingly, “Yes, she was suffocated to death.”
“But her mouth wasn’t injured.” I also knew that using the hand to suffocate the nose and mouth would lead to damage near the gums.
“What if there was a soft padding?” Brother Sheng Bing said, “There are many soft things on the bed.”
It suddenly dawned on me, “Pillow! However, to judge that she was suffocated with just this… Isn’t it too arbitrary?”
“Don’t rush, let’s take a look at the pale area on her chest.”
According to the normal surgical procedure, we opened the chest of the deceased, the scalpel cutting across that pale area. From the cross section, the skin was pale and there was no blood in the capillaries underneath. Even the muscles underneath showed signs of lacking blood.
“What does this pale area mean?” Brother Sheng Bing asked.
I shook my head in confusion.
“When a person’s alive, blood would fill the capillaries and continuously flow.” Brother Sheng Bing explained, “If a part of the body’s soft tissue was pressed by a heavy object, the blood in the capillaries and tissue would be squeezed to the side so the pressed portion would lack blood. If a person dies under such conditions, blood would no longer flow. Thus, even if the pressure is released, blood would no longer flow back into the area, right?”
I nodded, “Blood can’t flow back so this area is pale, different from its surroundings.”
“Indeed, meaning that during the time the deceased died, there was always something heavy pressing on their chest. In the summer, what could be pressing on your chest? Only people.” Brother Sheng Bing circled the pale area with his finger, saying: “Look, doesn’t it look like a human’s knee?” Once that was said, the more it seemed like it. I asked, “You’re saying, someone’s knee was pressing against her and then she was suffocated to death with a pillow?”
“Yes, pressing the knee against the chest can control the victim well, and you can also free your hands to cover the nose and mouth.”
We continued to dissect. The deceased’s thrombosis in the chest was very serious. It only furthered confirmed that she didn’t die from a sudden death but from asphyxiation by external forces.
“Since it’s definitely a closed scene, then the only suspect can be her husband.” Brother Sheng Bing told the policeman, “You wouldn’t believe a seven-year-old little boy has the ability, right?”
The policeman responded, “Looks like the criminal police are needed to investigate.”
On the way back, I was still thinking through the ins and outs of the case, but there was a tangled mess in my mind and I couldn’t sort through it no matter what.
Brother Sheng Bing seemed to see through my thoughts, “Is there anything you’d like to ask?”
“There actually isn’t any problem. Through the autopsy, the cause of death should be nailed down. However, considering the facts of the case, I have many doubts.”
“Of course, medical examiners need to link the details of a case together, but you cannot rely on mere investigation. It’s still the same phrase: the corpse doesn’t lie.”
“But their husband-wife relationship was so good and there wasn’t adultery, so why did the husband kill his wife?”
“From the perspective of criminal psychology, when criminals commit crimes, they may not necessarily need specific motives. Even though most murders are nothing more than acts of hatred or love, there are also a few cases where the murderer had no motive at all, or it could be called a momentary impulse. This kind of impulse we call passionate crime.”
“You mean, this case is a passionate crime?”
“Presently, it seems to be the case.”
“But we don’t have a basis for it.”
“When we were at the scene, you also noticed that the scene was closed. The doors and windows were closed tightly and the curtains were drawn. There was no air conditioner at the scene. I took a careful look and noticed that the fan wasn’t turned on either. In such hot weather, it’s fine if you didn’t turn on the fan, but why were the windows shut so tightly? Were they who lived on the fifth floor guarding against thieves? Their conditions were so bad, just what were they worried about being stolen? Moreover, the windows in the small room and living room were both open. Was it possible to prevent theft just from closing the windows of the bedroom?”
My mind was blank for a moment, “Was the man pretending? No, that’s wrong. Even if he was pretending, he should’ve opened the windows and said that someone else came in through the window and killed his wife.”
“Could it be that the woman was afraid of cold? Arthritis?” I felt my deductions growing less and less reliable.
“Closing the windows and drawing the blinds in the summer, what about a couple’s married life?” Brother Sheng Bing said.
“Oh yeah, why didn’t I think of that? Their sex life wasn’t harmonious so the man killed the woman in a fit of rage,” I started to guess.
“At present, this is only speculation. Further evidence is needed,” Brother Sheng Bing cautiously warned.
Just guessing wasn’t good. The current evidence wasn’t enough to finalize the case. During the autopsy, we extracted the deceased’s ten fingernails and went back to the scene, collecting all the soft objects that could be used to cover the nose and mouth, immediately sending it all to the Provincial Police Station for DNA testing.
The morning of the next day, the Provincial Police Station sent back news: New dead skin cells were found in the deceased’s fingernails. Amongst the materials, the deceased’s oral skin cells were found on a stuffed toy.
“Seems like that man was injured.” Brother Sheng Bing grew lively after hearing the news, “Let’s go listen to the interrogation.”
According to the unified plans of the investigation force, the child had already been taken to the Criminal Police’s office. The one who came with the child was his aunt. According to law, the child’s guardian must be present when questioning minors. The child’s mother was dead, father the primary suspect, so the burden of guardian fell on the shoulders of the child’s only relative— the child’s aunt.
The one in charge of questioning was a policewoman in plain clothes. Through several times of communication, the child’s trust was obtained. The child quickly told the truth, “That night, Daddy wasn’t the one that took me to sleep. I started to fall asleep on my own very early, but when I woke up in the morning, Daddy had fallen asleep beside me at some point. Later, I discovered that Mommy died. After Mommy died, Daddy told me that I must tell you that he slept with me. I don’t know why, but Daddy definitely didn’t kill Mommy. Mommy died of illness.”
“Did your Mommy and Daddy ever fight?”
“Sometimes a few sentences.”
The facts of the case gradually became clear. The man’s time and motivation for committing the crime were also obtained.
The man sat in the interrogation chair and stubbornly resisted, “What are you police doing? My wife died and you detain me because you can’t crack the case?”
Brother Sheng Bing walked straight to the side of the man and flatly said, “Take off your shirt.”
The man froze for a moment, “T-Take off my shirt? What do you want to do? You want to beat me? What age is this… You dare to…”
“TAKE IT OFF!” Brother Sheng Bing shouted on rare occasion.
The man immediately fell silent and took off his shirt. There were a few bright red fingernail scratches on his chest.
Brother Sheng Bing said, “Such fresh injuries can only be formed within 48 hours. Don’t tell me you made it yourself from scratching an itch.”
The man lowered his head, probably thinking of a countermeasure.
“Speak, how did you smother your wife to death with that stuffed toy in your house?”
The man’s body tensed before he began to tremble.
“Killing someone just because they refused to copulate with you, you’re really a beast!” The investigators had apparently grasped our earlier hypothesis and began to vigorously rebuke him.
Unexpectedly, the man began crying with a ‘wah’, the snot and tears giving everyone a shock. After crying for a long while, he began to slowly say, “Actually, she had always looked down on me! In the eyes of others, our relationship was very good, but I knew that she had always looked down on me!”
It turned out that the man’s self-esteem was the one behind the murder.
“Yes, I killed her… That night, we finished watching TV and were preparing to sleep. I guessed that my child had already gone to bed and went to close the windows and blinds, intending to have some fun with her.” The man wiped his nose and continued, “Then she loudly complained, ‘Why’d you close the windows on such a hot day? Are you mental?’ I was originally diagnosed with neurosis and went to many hospitals yet they couldn’t cure me. I can’t even control my shaking usually. I felt embarrassed enough in front of others, so how could I stand my wife scolding me for my neurosis? That’s why I rode on top of her without a second word, wanting to use force to take off her clothes. However, I don’t know what wrong medicine she took that day, flying into a rage as soon as I made a move. Kicking me off the bed with a foot, saying that I only think about these things every day, relying on gibberish to make some small change just enough for vegetables every day, what kind of evil did she commit in the past life to marry me and the like. The more I listened, the angrier I got. How could a wife scold her husband like this?! In a fit of anger, I jumped on the bed, holding her down with my knee and continued to tear at her clothes. Maybe because I pressed down on her and she couldn’t move, she began yelling and even scratched my chest. I was so angry I grabbed the stuffed toy on the bedside table to cover her mouth. I didn’t think that she would stop moving after a while…”
Having said that, the man seemed very scared, “I looked later and found out that she really no longer had any breath. I hurriedly straightened the blankets and ran to my son’s bed to sleep, hoping that you all would think she might’ve died of illness…”
Walking out of the interrogation room, the sun was shining brightly, but my heart was heavy. Who knew if that cute little boy could still grow up strong after discovering these cruel truths?
The raws are divided into three parts, so I’m going to follow suit and divide it into three. Just skip down to the 2 (or 3) when it’s updated.