Nearly three weeks since Elizabeth Heath‘s remains were found, the medical examiner still has not identified the cause of death, police said. “They’re still doing forensic testing,” Police Chief Michael Kehoe said of staff at the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.
Kehoe said the medical examiner’s office has more work to do before the remains can be turned over to the family. Police are in contact with the family, and are conscious that they want Heath’s remains returned, Kehoe said.
Determining the cause of death on a skeleton is extremely difficult, takes a long time and depending on the remains, sometimes can be impossible, said Lawrence Kobilinsky, a well-known forensic scientist and chairman of the science department at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “The fact that they don’t know cause of death by now isn’t good news,” he said.
Kobilinsky, who is not involved with the case, said that unless a weapon was found, or there was a bone fracture or other skeletal evidence indicating how death was caused, the medical examiner would have little to go on. “Sometimes the soft tissue has all the information that we’re looking for but it’s gone in this case,” he said, adding that too much time has elapsed. ”
In some cases, the environment in which the remains were stored may provide remnants of tissue material, such as through fungal growth, but even if that was the case, determining the cause of death is not guaranteed, Kobilinsky said, adding that the medical examiner may have too little information to make a determination. “You can have a homicide and no cause of death,” Kobilinsky said, adding that trying a case without a cause of death then becomes extremely difficult. “The prosecutor has to prove beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Police also spent much of last Thursday at the Bridgewater home of ex-husband John Heath where they executed a search warrant. A neighbor said police hauled away an assortment of items in clear plastic bags from the home. Police have not identified John Heath as a suspect. Authorities also declined to comment on what investigators examined and eventually removed from the home. The search warrant, which was filed at the state Superior Court in Danbury, was sealed by the judge, according to the clerk’s office.
The problems with the soft tissue the medical examiner faces in the Elizabeth Heath case are similar to the issues we saw in the post “Identifying the Lost Soldiers of Fromelles: The problem with DNA that’s been in the ground for 90 years is it degrades in quality and quantity,” says molecular geneticist Dr Peter Jones. If it’s a very acidic site, there’s no chance of DNA at all because acids attack DNA rapidly. If it’s dry and arid like in a desert, you get good DNA. If it’s wet, less good.”
Let’s wait patiently. More information about Elizabeth Heath is here.