Fingerprinting a Decomposed Male

It was a particularly slow day at work, unusually so.

It's days like this when I get a chance to catch up on paperwork. Statement requests for upcoming court cases are always dropping into my inbox. I take time and care with my statements, they are detailed and factual. Some colleagues make their statements brief on the belief that they can elaborate when giving evidence at court. I prefer my theory; provide as much information as possible to ensure any questions the prosecution or defence may have are answered in my statement.

I very rarely go to court so my theory seems to work.

I was finishing up on a statement when my radio went off. It was a colleague, they asked if I could assist them at the mortuary.

'Post-Mortem?' I asked.

'N'ah, just fingerprints' he replied.

From time to time, we assist the Coroner in identifying someone who cannot be identified in a traditional way.

My colleague has done this type of job before and knew I would snap at the chance to help, we agreed to meet at the mortuary in an hour's time.

The mortuary was in the City centre, we don't use this one often. Parking is a nightmare, so I found a 'Police' parking bay nearby, I put the CSI sign on the dashboard and got my kit together.

I met my colleague at the entrance and he rang the bell. It didn't look like a mortuary- It was an old Victorian building and was stunning to look at. You could walk by and have no idea that there were fifty or so fridges inside, built for deceased people.

The mortuary technician let us in and seemed to know my colleague. He knows everyone, he's done the job for twenty years.

The place stank, more so than normal. The normal mortuary smells, but there's often a clean smell there somewhere too. Not here.

There's no office, no changing rooms and no where to put my case. I'm very particular about where I put my case, it goes everywhere with me, from murder scenes to burglaries. It's got to be kept clean, and I'm something of a clean freak.

The technician leads us part away along the fridge lined corridor. We stop and he says 'He's in here' and opens up a fridge door at about waist height. He lines a trolley up to the door and pulls the tray out. There's a black body bag on it. He pushes it towards us and says 'All yours lads, give me a shout when you're done.'

He slams the fridge door shut and begins to walk away. I've intimated to my colleague that I don't want to put my case on the floor. The smell was a warning. My colleague asks if there is a table we can borrow.

The technician walks back along the corridor and reappears a few moments later with a trolley. A trolley they use to move deceased people about on. 'This is the best we've got' he says, I can see now why we don't use this mortuary very often.

I lay some green paper towels on the trolley and put my folder on them. That'll have to do for now.

My colleague suggests that we should be able do what we need to do without getting dirty so white suits won't be needed.

He pulls back the zip and that smell hits me, hard. It's a smell that I recognise instantly. It's death. There's no other smell like it, and it's bad. I can normally bear it, but this guy is badly decomposed, I have to wear a mask to feel comfortable.

There are hundreds of maggots. Hundreds.

I take a closer look. His eyes are clouded and have shrunk in their sockets, the skin that remains on his face his saggy, It's hanging from parts of his face. His mouth and nostrils and full of maggots.

They are slow moving as they've been in the freezer and have defrosted in the fridge. They're slowly coming back to life. A single Bluebottle can lay up to 300-2000 eggs in clusters of 30-150. The eggs are often laid on moist areas, which explains why maggots appear in nostrils, eyelids, mouth and genitals as well as open wounds.

I don't know what ethnicity this male is, it's hard to tell as the decomposition has discoloured his skin badly.

His hands are together, tied with string. At first, this set alarm bells ringing, but this appears to be something the mortuary do when storing people.

As a result of his hands being tied together and being placed on his stomach, his hands had sunk into his body. They are surround by fluid. An off brown fluid.

I retrieve a scalpel from my case to cut the string around his hands. That's definitely not going back in my case. His hands need drying before we can print them. My colleague takes hold of a hand and begins to dab the male's fingers with green paper towel, The green paper quickly changes colour to match the fluid it's drying.

There are a number of ways that we can take this male's fingerprints, using various powders and recovery techniques. My colleague suggests that we start with the easiest. I like that idea- I don't want to be in this place any longer than is necessary.

We have small brushes for this very purpose, which are disposable. We used aluminium powder, it's silver and like a very fine dust. It's a flake powder, which means each flake sits on top of the last. It can be applied steadily and built up, it's best to start with too little and keep adding powder. I haven't filled my ally' pot up for twelve months or more- a little goes a long way.

My colleague held the male's wrist.

I put the brush on the edge of the make shift table and grab a some fingerprint tape. This is the same tape we use to recover fingerprints from scenes. I apply it carefully to the male's thumb and pressed it. His hands were cold, his fingertips were wrinkled. By pressing hard, I hoped to get as much detail from between wrinkles.

Whilst doing this I could see that the maggots were becoming more and more lively. As they were warming up they were become more active, almost giving the illusion that the male was actually moving!

We both became very aware that the maggots were spilling everywhere and that maybe we should have worn those suits after all.

I slowly and carefully peeled the tape away from his thumb and stuck the tape on a piece of clear acetate to be photographed later. We repeated this step for each digit, some gave better marks than other, but I was confident we had enough detail to make an identification.

Clearing up our stuff needs to be in a specific order to ensure that dirty things are disposed and anything clean is handled with clean gloves. I'm very careful to ensure this is the case. Sometimes I stop and speak out the order in which I am going to touch things to make sure clean is clean.

Once everything is in an orange bag and away from me I gather my clean items in order to leave. I keep a clean glove on my right hand to carry my case to the van, as soon as its outside the mortuary, I'm scrubbing it!


  1. Fascinating insight.

  2. Very interesting...

    On behalf of keeping your case clean:
    how about building a collapsible rack from PVC or aluminium tubes? The legs could be fitted with disposible covers (think: shoes made from plastic or rubber).
    This would suspend your case some inches abobe any grime, mud or whatever you don´t want it to stand on directly.