The magician of the Easter crime – Not quite like on TV – Norway

They glance at the corpse, bend down and look a little closer at the marks after suffocation or a gunshot wound, and quickly determine both the cause of death and the time with embarrassing accuracy.

They chase away police officers so that tracks are not destroyed. They work around the clock, often in dim lighting, with a dead body on the metal table.

This is how it is in the Easter crime.


– The reality looks a little different.

Ida Kathrine Gravensteen is a forensic pathologist. She loves Easter crime.

– It can be fun, but it’s annoying to watch a series when they have not done proper preparation. For example, when you see that they turn a body from the abdomen to the back, and there are no death spots on the face. It’s very annoying.

Ida Kathrine Gravensteen at the dashboard.

– In addition, it is the police who control the crime scenes. We do not come in as cowboys, says Gravensteen.

– We must be careful not to ruin the police investigation. We must dress in white suits and not tamper with anything, do not contaminate important trace material. We cooperate with the police.

Crime scene investigation

Gravensteen says that forensic doctors in Norway are far too seldom called to a crime scene.

– Unfortunately. We should have been there to a much greater extent than we are today. There is a shortcoming in Norwegian forensic medicine. There are great benefits to seeing a crime scene or sudden death.

Crime scene investigation

Being present at a crime scene provides important information, says Gravensteen. DNA traces are secured in the image.
Photo: Øyvind Bye Skille / NRK

She says it gives a completely different information to be at a crime scene with unclear deaths.

– See a body in its surroundings. Get an idea of ​​the course of events by seeing overturned furniture, traces of blood, you can see weapons. You can see what the body looks like immediately.

One of the most important things a forensic pathologist does at a crime scene is to determine the time of death as early as possible. But determining the exact time when death occurred is impossible.

– One of the earliest signs is death spots. The blood follows gravity, it goes out into the tissue in lower areas of the body. It happens after about half an hour.

If the body is moved within the first 12-24 hours, the spots will move.

It is a great advantage for forensic scientists to see a dead body before it is moved on.
Photo: Marco Vaglieri

– Seeing how these spots are during the first time can provide important information. If you find a body lying on your stomach, but then the spots are on your back, you know that the body must have been moved when you are at the scene. If the body comes to us in forensic medicine and lies on its back, then you can not know this.

Three classic characters

The three classic signs of death are next to the spots, death stiffness and degree of cooling.

– You use the three. But these are uncertain parameters. It is also important to know what the deceased was wearing, measure the humidity, and especially measure the temperature at the body.

– Otherwise, the other parameters are really worthless. In addition, something that has come in recent years is examinations of the fluid in the eyes. For the first four days, this gives us useful information, says the forensic pathologist.

From the Easter crime series «Grace».
Photo: ITV / NRK

Gravensteen says that the time intervals they relate to in reality are never as precise as what is often seen in crime series.

– Overall, the information can give a clue. We can estimate with a certain probability that death occurred within a period of time, during that day for example. If all the measurements go in the same direction, it is easier to be more precise. If they break a little, we must take into account a larger time interval.

– It is very important to convey this uncertainty. There are cases where the time of death is adapted to the investigation in relation to when the suspect had an alibi and did not. This has happened in cases that turn out to be assassinations, for example.

The autopsy room at the Department of Forensic Medicine at OUS.

The workplace

She is wearing a surgeon’s suit with a plastic apron over it. Gravensteen has two pairs of plastic gloves on his hands.

Blue on the inside and white on the outside, so she can see if she has been unlucky with the scalpel.

– It does not look so design gorgeous on the forensic pathologist at Rikshospitalet Oslo. And we could not work under such dim lighting as you see in many of the series, says Gravensteen.

Blue gloves under white show if the forensic pathologist cuts herself while she works.

– We have an autopsy room with a CT machine, which is operated by the autopsy technicians. We CT scan all before autopsy.

We assess the cases, and decide whether the police will participate in the autopsy. If we have a murder case, there are two forensic doctors present, Gravensteen says.

The autopsy

The first thing that is done at an autopsy is an external examination.

– We look at everything from clothing, what the body looks like, look for these classic signs of death, and also look for signs of illness and damage to the outside of the body. Then we go through the CT scan, look for metal objects in the body and morbid signs such as blood clots.

Arne Stray-Pedersen, chief physician at the Department of Forensic Pathology and Clinical Forensic Medicine at Rikshospitalet, at the CT scanner at the Department of Forensic Medicine.
Photo: Berit Roald / NTB

CT can provide very good information in addition to an autopsy.

The actual aperture is done by the autopsy technician.

– Then you make this famous y-cut and take out the organs. We work together all the time. The organs are placed on a dissection table, the forensic pathologist systematically goes through all the organs, cuts up and takes small samples to be viewed under the microscope. Then you look at urine and blood, to find any other substances.

Some of the equipment used during an autopsy.

Thorough work is being done. As a rule, one can perform two autopsies in one day. If it is a murder, it can take several days.

An example from the TV series The Fall, which especially amuses Gravensteen, is an episode where the forensic pathologist considers signs of suffocation on a body.

– Spot bleeding is seen on the face and under the eyelids, in the conjunctiva, there may be signs of suffocation. In the series, they say that it has all taken place over 45 minutes. It is an example of being completely out on the plains. One can not say anything specific about how long the pressure against the neck has lasted, and whether the pressure has been even or uneven. It is very sought after, smiles Ida Kathrine Gravensteen.

Rubber boots, all marked with the name of those who work there, are often used during an autopsy.

Sudden death

There are special deaths that are examined at the forensic doctor’s table. She and her colleagues receive the dead when the police are not entirely sure how or why they died.

People who have died a suspicious death, abruptly or unexpectedly.

– Here come the bodies of people who have been shot, beaten and stabbed. Those who have taken their own lives, and those who have died suddenly without anyone knowing why. People who die in traffic accidents and in fires also come to the Department of Forensic Medicine.

She says that at first she was surprised at how many cases they get where they can put a fairly certain cause of death.

– For example, large heart attack or blood clot in a coronary artery at the heart, and hanging. Other times there are tight veins around the heart, various things that make it possible to determine that this is at least not an unnatural death.

The forensic pathologist says that when people are found in unnatural environments with injuries, you can see if there is violence, and in many cases rule it out.

– It is very important.

One of the perforated autopsy tables at Gravensteen’s workplace.

The authors are impressed

Forensic medicine and forensic science are incredibly exciting subjects. We crime writers – and probably our readers as well – let ourselves be impressed by how a drop of blood or a strand of hair can gnaw a suspect at a crime scene and a crime. That’s what crime writer Tom Egeland says.

He says it is easy for the authors to make mistakes.

Author Tom Egeland has written over 20 crime novels
Photo: Private

– So a crime writer who is going to move into the field of forensic medicine, must keep his tongue straight in his mouth.

Egeland says that a forensic autopsy will soon reveal that a cause of death is completely different from what was first thought.

– For us crime writers, forensic scientists can function almost like magicians. A trifle can prove to solve a complicated case. It can also make forensic medicine a decisive factor in a criminal case, as well as in a crime novel.

Egeland believes that the authors’ fascination with forensic medicine and forensic science is very much about the mystery of the subject.

– For us ordinary people, it is almost magical what a forensic pathologist can read out of “nothing”. For them as professionals, it is not magic, but science and ingenuity, concludes author Tom Egeland.

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