EvidenceProf Blog

Editor: Colin Miller
Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

Friday, June 12, 2015

Livor Mortis & Placing a Victim in the Trunk of a Car

For the past week, I've been trying to find a case involving lividity and a body in a trunk. The only case that I was able to find is State v. Persitz, 518 N.W.2d 843 (Minn. 1994). The Persitz case isn't especially factually similar to the Adnan Syed case, but it does provide some interesting points of comparison/contrast.

Persitz was a murder trial. I'm not going to go into the full facts of the case, but there was a dispute between the prosecution and defense over what the defendant did with the victim's body after killing him (the defendant raised an insanity defense). According to the defendant, on January 28,  1991, he (1) killed the victim; (2) put his body in the trunk of his car; (3) dumped the body in a park later the same night; (4) returned to the park the next morning and put the body back in the trunk; (5) tried to bury the body at a compost site but couldn't because the ground was frozen; and finally (6) used a hatchet he kept in his car to cut off the victim's head and hands so that the victim couldn't be identified and/or couldn't haunt him.

By way of contrast,

The county medical examiner testified that the evidence of lividity was consistent with the body having remained on its side in the same position for eight to twelve hours after death. The state argued that this evidence contradicted appellant's testimony that he moved the body from his trunk to a parking lot in a park. The medical examiner also concluded that some of the marks left by the dismemberment were probably made by a saw. The state argued that this showed planning, and that appellant lied when he testified that he used only a hatchet that he kept in his car to dismember the body.

Again, this case doesn't look a lot like the Adnan Syed case, but it did involve the claim that the victim's body was placed in a trunk and then dumped in a park. What the case does have is two things consistent with what I've been told by a number of experts: (1) a body in a trunk for at least a few hours will almost certainly result in (at least some) side lividity; and (2) a body needs to be in the same position for about 8-12 hours for there to be a single pattern of fixed lividity.

-CM

https://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2015/06/for-the-past-week-ive-been-trying-to-find-a-case-involving-lividity-and-a-body-in-a-trunk-the-only-case-that-i-was-able-to.html

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Comments

Was it proven Hae was ever even in the trunk of her car? Where there purge fluids in there that were hers b/c just evidence of her (hair, cells) would not convince me she was in there after death? I'm not convinced Jay was even part of this case or that there was ever a "trunk pop."

Posted by: fourhens | Jun 12, 2015 6:59:16 AM

fourhens: No, they never tested Hae's trunk for purge fluids, epithelial cells, etc. She might very well never have been in the trunk.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Jun 12, 2015 7:07:49 AM

WTH did ANYONE actually DO on this case? Seems like NOTHING was covered. I am beyond frustrated with just getting the most basic questions answered about basic information.

Posted by: fourhens | Jun 12, 2015 7:27:37 AM

So your understanding is that if Hae were in the trunk for 4 hours, lividity would not have fixed yet but there probably (though not necessarily) would have been a mixed pattern. And Jay's description in the first interview that Hae was put into the grave by Adnan "face first" is consistent with the final lividity pattern, with the blood pooling in the face and chest? Also, I find it interesting that at trial, Dr. Korell, who actually examined the body first-hand, did not feel she could make a determination one way or the other about whether the body had been held somewhere before being placed in the grave, based on her analysis of the lividity. Are your experts critical of Korell? Are they seeing something in the photos that she couldn't see first-hand? Thanks.

Posted by: dWakawaka | Jun 12, 2015 8:36:17 AM

dWakawaka: The people I've asked seem to think that Dr. Korell wasn't asked the right questions. For instance, I don't think that Dr. Korell was ever asked about how long it takes for lividity to partially and fully fix. I did a prior post:

http://lawprofessors.typepad.com/evidenceprof/2015/02/this-is-my-fourth-in-a-series-of-posts-about-livor-mortisfixed-lividity-first-postsecond-postthird-postive-made-two-cla.html

about the Wiggins case, in which Dr. Korell's superior gave the following testimony:

"As I say, this lividity usually starts to become apparent within two to four hours after death. Sometimes it's little sooner than that.

After a period of time, usually not less than eight hours, sometimes a much longer period of time, the pooling of the blood, the lividity will fix in the tissues where it is settled up until about eight hours or so.

If one moves a body, if a body is found face down, and four or five hours after death this individual is found and the body is turned over, placed on the back, then the pooling of blood will change direction and start pooling toward the back. But after a period of eight to twelve hours, the blood is fixed in that location. So that moving the body will not alter the distribution of the lividity."

That's basically consistent with what every expert has told me. Lividity starts to fix 2-4 hours after death, so a body on its side for 4-5 hours after death would retain at least some side lividity, and lividity fully fixes between 8-12 hours after death, so Hae couldn't have been buried on her right side in the 7:00 hour based on the fixed frontal lividity.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Jun 12, 2015 8:45:26 AM

Why do you continue to say that a body in the trunk of a car MUST de facto show side lividity? Logically, that is only the case if the body is in the trunk on its side. I see know reason why a body cannot be on its back or its front. Particularly if the person is small and if someone puts stuff on top of the body to hide it (which I have always thought Adnan did with the gym equipment, Simpson correctly ascertained it was always in the trunk).

Posted by: jlpsquared | Jun 12, 2015 9:00:05 AM

Thanks, Prof. Miller. A concern I've had is whether "right side" actually means that the lowest part of the body in the grave was the right side. Jay's description is more "face first"/"face down" and I would love to know whether there are exhumation photos or some other hard evidence of whether the face and chest were lowest, thus explaining the livor mortis. Again, thanks for the discussion.

Posted by: dWakawaka | Jun 12, 2015 9:08:14 AM

Weather also has an impact - Hae Min Lee was frozen solid at some point that night and early into the morning. Surely that would have a profound impact on lividity.

Posted by: Sasha Stone | Jun 12, 2015 9:22:10 AM

Jipsqaured: Hae was between 5’6” and 5’8, and the trunk was likely about 48 inches wide and contained a good number of items. Jay also described Hae as pretzeled up and recalled seeing her lips when Adnan popped the trunk. I suppose it’s possible that Hae was face down/prone in a way that matched the lividity, but I don’t think it is very likely.

dWakawaka: All the conclusions about lividity are based upon the statement in the autopsy report that Hae was on her right side. I think, at a minimum, that this description is enough to conclude that her position was inconsistent with the lividity. The burial scene photos would definitely be helpful, but we don’t have them (yet).

Sasha: My understanding is that it was in the 50s for most of the day on January 13th, dropped into the 40s as midnight approached, and then dropped into the 30s as the storm approached at 4:30 A.M. Based on this, there probably wasn’t much if any delay in lividity starting to fix, but there might have been some delay in lividity becoming fully fixed (maybe 13+ hours instead of 8-12).

Posted by: Colin Miller | Jun 12, 2015 10:49:04 AM

I've wondered whether the lividity would actually match up better with the story Jay told in his Intercept interview. Doesn't it seem like these would be the patterns if Jay saw Hae's body earlier in the day, then she was left at the burial site one position at around 7 and buried later on that night/early the next morning?

Posted by: Kristin | Jun 12, 2015 11:20:31 AM

Kristin: In Jay's Intercept interview:

https://firstlook.org/theintercept/2014/12/29/exclusive-interview-jay-wilds-star-witness-adnan-syed-serial-case-pt-1/

the trunk pop happens after 6:00 P.M., with Jay saying Hae was on her side in the trunk). Then, closer to midnight, Adnan and he drive to Leakin Park in Adnan's car and dig a hole. Then, Adnan gets Hae's car, takes her out of the trunk, and buries her. So, in this version, Hae should definitely have side lividity.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Jun 12, 2015 11:31:23 AM

Say Hae was in the trunk and "pretzeled up." If she had her chest and face downwards, at some point she would be on her right hip, or thighs with lower legs push back or up. you would see lividity on either her front thighs, right hip and out to the out right thigh.
None of that was described in the autopsy report. She was layed somewhere flat and i am beginning to believe it was in Lincoln Park before the final burial.
Another comment I found interesting elsewhere is the possible link to the streaker finding Hae and possibly knowing Jay from the Porno store....

Posted by: navymom | Jun 12, 2015 12:05:38 PM

Colin,
Since were on the topic of the car and lividity. I am still trying to figure out how Hae was transported to the burial site unnoticed. Was there any evidence of Hae in Adnan's car at all? Was there any sitting lividity on Hae's body? The kind where she is dead and just sitting down in the passenger seat. And do I have it correct that there were hairs found in both the drivers side and the passenger side of Hae's car

Posted by: Jim M. | Jun 12, 2015 12:21:49 PM

navymom: Agreed, and I think Jay himself explains what he means by “pretzeled up” in his Intercept interview:

“And then he popped the trunk and I saw Hae’s body. She looked kinda purple, blue, her legs were tucked behind her, she had stockings on, none of her clothes were removed, nothing like that.”

It seems pretty clear that Jay is saying that Hae was on her right or left side, with her legs tucked behind her. I don’t think Jay is telling the truth, but he certainly seems to be describing Hae on her side.

Jim M.: There was no evidence of Hae in Adnan’s car, and there was no lividity consistent with a sitting position.

Desire Dunn: Gutierrez did not seem to really put the prosecution to its paces in this case.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Jun 12, 2015 1:25:25 PM

Jay described Hae as "all pretzeled up" and noted her "blue lips"
Given the livor mortis, how did Adnan put her face down with her legs up behind her to fit in a small boot? Human bodies don't bend that way! And if she was in that position how did Jay see her blue lips??

Posted by: Kerri | Jun 13, 2015 1:46:31 AM

What about evidence of decomposition or insect activity? I remember the ME on The Docket mentioning one or both of these being unusual, with regards to the prosecution's version of events.

Posted by: Anon | Jun 13, 2015 4:08:31 AM

Kerri: Right. jay certainly is describing Hae on her side.

Anon: I've been told that the lack of insect activity was unsurprising given the weather in Baltimore in Jaunary/February.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Jun 13, 2015 4:50:01 AM

I don't think Jay was describing Hae on her side? I don't think the trunk pop actually happened. I actually think Jay's testimony was to scapegoat Adnan and protect police links to his family business?

Posted by: Kerri | Jun 13, 2015 7:31:23 AM

Here's the summary of the lividity evidence from the ruling by J. Burnett (3/8/07) . Remember, the infant was apparently sitting in the front passenger seat without a car seat when shot. "The autopsy revealed that lividity was fixed in Aja's left lateral and posterial sides, indicating that she had been slumped to her left side '[p]robably for a couple of hours' before she was placed on her back. Further, according to Assistant Medical Examiner Dr. Dennis Chute, who performed the autopsy, lividity would not have become fixed in the few minutes between the shooting as described by appellant and the time Aja's body was removed from the car."

Posted by: Nine9fifty50 | Jun 13, 2015 8:47:56 AM

Nine9fifty50: Interesting. Where did you get those quotes? If they're accurate, then Nicolas was actually a dual lividity case. That actually would make things even more interesting.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Jun 13, 2015 8:49:37 AM

First, I want to say thank you for responding to all of these comments and tweets. That alone seems like it would be a full time job. I want to, as briefly as possible, throw out a theory of this case and ask you how you think they evidence present could disprove it. I think that Adnan got a short ride from Hae to track practice. There in her car they probably argued, Adnan struck Hae and then pushed her over into the passenger seat, drove to Leakin Park, dumped her body, face down, a short distance from the grave site. Adnan goes to the best buy and calls Jay. He’s panicked and he asks Jay for help. Maybe they go back to practice maybe they don’t? But even Adnan claims that they were together that day. Knowing Jay’s social situation, he’s black and is involved in illegal activities, Jay gets trapped into Adnan’s crime. Jade’s a black kid selling pot and Adnan’s a smart nice kid in the magnet school. It is not hard to believe how Adnan could easily manipulate Jay into helping him. This is supported by Josh’s statements that Jay seemed scared at the video store. Jay may be desperate to find a way out of this, and for a black kid going to the cops is not as easy as you and I might think. So as Jay states, they argue and he agrees to help Adnan dig a hole but on the condition that he refuses to look at or be near Hae’s body. He even states at one point that he waits in the car for Adnan who moves the body to the grave and Adnan tells him “She was heavy.” I think when they were digging the hole the body wasn’t there. Finally, the detectives find their way to Jay and he confesses that he helped Adnan dig the hole, but that he “never touched or saw the body.” That truthful admission might prove problematic for them and since they know Jay is involved, and sells pot, etc. they have him trapped just like Adnan trapped him. So they coax his statement, maybe they think that just stating that Adnan had Hae’s car, and that he helped him dig a hole, won’t convict Adnan so they tell him you have to say you saw the body. ‘You saw the body, and you saw him burry it.” Annan is a man trapped between a rock and a hard place. Once he is honest with the cops he has to play by their rules because if Adnan gets off he’s coming for Jay next. I know it just a theory like everyone else seems to have one, but it is the only thing that makes any sense to me. That’s why Jay continues to Lie, and that’s why Adnan sits silent. Two people don’t just have a nice normal day and smoke pot, then one goes home and decides to frame his friend for a crime his friend didn’t commit it’s crazy. Jay has a better Alibi than Adnan he has his phone!!!

Posted by: Paul Hoen | Jun 14, 2015 3:15:18 PM

Paul: That’s an interesting theory that would explain the lividity evidence and Jay’s shifting statements. Here, however, are a few points to consider. First, Hae typically gave Adnan rides to track practice at about 3:00 P.M. In 1999, Becky said that Hae turned Adnan down for a ride between 2:15 and 2:20 because she had “something else” to do and headed toward the door that led to her car. A few months ago, Krista told me that Aisha (Hae’s best friend) recalled a similar conversation. We’ve called into question whether Inez Butler is remembering the correct day, but she also testified at trial that she saw Hae leaving school in a hurry soon after the end of school. Based on these statements, it’s tough to see how Adnan got a ride to track practice from Hae. Whether track started at 3:30 or 4:00 P.M., I don’t see Adnan getting a ride to track practice at 2:20-2:30 P.M.

Second, let’s assume that Adnan did get his typical ride to track practice from Hae at about 3:00 P.M. and that it ended in Adnan killing Hae, taking her to Leakin Park, and then calling Jay from Best Buy. Leakin Park is about 9 minutes from Woodlawn, and Best Buy is about 12 minutes from Leakin Park. Add in a few minutes for dropping Hae’s body in Leakin Park, and you’re at about 25 minutes minimum. If you look at Adnan’s call log, there’s an incoming call at 3:15, with the next incoming call at 4:27 P.M. 4:27 seems much too late, so can the 3:15 call work? In this scenario, it seems the theory would be that Adnan got the ride to track from Hae at about 2:45-2:50, allowing for the 3:15 call from Best Buy.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Jun 15, 2015 6:41:05 AM

Hey Colin,

I reviewed Becky’s statement and it appears that if Hae had said yes that’s exactly when the ride would have taken place. It’s not like Adnan would have said, “Give me a ride.” and then they would have separated and then met up again closer to practice. They would have walked from there to the lower parking lot and she would have driven him around to practice. Also, not sure where you get your characterization that “… she walked out the door towards her car.” Her car was always parked in the lower lot and it seems she would have walked down there with Adnan. I think that is represented in the someone’s statement. It seems to me that there was plenty of time for Adnan to have met her again on the way to the lower parking lot. Also regarding Becky’s statement, if you hold it to be true Adnan asked her for a ride because, “His car is in the shop.” This is troubling obviously because it is not truthful.

Thanks again for responding,

Paul

Posted by: Paul Hoen | Jun 15, 2015 1:57:01 PM

Paul: These are fair points. I think this boils down to the two theories I've head since the end of the podcast. Hae turned Adnan down for a ride at the end of the school day, and then (1) left without Adnan; or (2) Adnan later convinced her to give him a ride. I hope that I'm able to conclusively say which happened at some point.

Posted by: Colin Miller | Jun 15, 2015 6:15:58 PM

Me too!!!! :-)

Posted by: Paul Hoen | Jun 15, 2015 6:23:07 PM

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