Thomas Noguchi: Coroner to the Stars

Interviewed November 1986 by Douglas Stein

Removing the key and turning the knob in one quick motion, he steps soundlessly into the dark room. "I love to enter the crime scene from the kitchen," he announces. "People's minute-to-minute movements are registered here. I routinely open the refrigerator to get people's life-styles: the type of food they like, where they buy, how much they pay, how they wrap. In one homicide I investigated, the homeowner returned early, surprising the burglar, so the burglary ended in murder. But the burglar was hungry, so he had a bite to eat before leaving. We found distinct teeth marks in the cheese!"

The enthusiastic speaker is Thomas T. Noguchi, renowned medical detective and forensic scientist. Born in Japan in 1927, he arrived in the United States when he was twenty-five and already an M.D. Noguchi made headlines in 1962 when he performed the autopsy on Marilyn Monroe. He had been a member of the Los Angeles medical examiner's office a scant year when he got the nod to conduct the star's autopsy, superseding his senior colleagues because he alone was board certified in both clinical and anatomic pathology. The public and Noguchi's peers were impressed with the meticulous quality of his examination. Eyeballing virtually every square millimeter of Monroe's skin, Noguchi failed to find a single injection mark. Combining his evaluation of Monroe's internal organs with lab tests for drug residues, he issued his often contested verdict: suicide by ingestion of massive quantities of Nembutal and chloral hydrate.

Monroe's demise seemed to prophesy the Sixties as a decade of drug excess. Deputy Medical Examiner Noguchi, skilled in toxicological procedure and instrumentation, rose rapidly, becoming L.A.'s second chief medical examiner in 1967. Scarcely half a year after his appointment, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Remembering the bunglings by government doctors in the John Kennedy autopsy, Noguchi promised himself: No Dallas this time. He devised an unprecedented ballistics test to pinpoint the distance of the gun muzzle from the senator's head and confirmed it with infrared photography of hair shavings from around the fatal wound. In doing so, he refuted dozens of eyewitness reports of the event that suggested the chilling possibility that Sirhan Sirhan may not have been the sole gunman.

If the RFK autopsy greatly expanded the notion of what constitutes relevant physical evidence, the 1969 Sharon Tate-La Bianca investigation showed the ultimate value of "the psychological autopsy," or character profile, in tracing an assailant. Rejecting the police hypothesis that the bloody mass murder was a drug-related vendetta, Noguchi called in veteran psychiatrist Frederick Hacker. Hacker's detailed portrait of the killer fit Charles Manson to a tee.

In 1969 Noguchi was fired for going over the head of County Administrative Officer Lin Hollinger to get increased funding. After several months of heated debate he was reinstated at a Civil Service Commission hearing. Throughout the Seventies he waged an uphill battle to modernize his office and extend the range of its operations. He realized that he needed more than just increased manpower. Unexplained homicides in L.A. doubled and finally quadrupled in the Seventies; and although drug overdose deaths peaked from 1970 to 1972, the sheer number of drugs in use, especially homemade designer hallucinogens, began to multiply.

The Forensic Science Center opened in 1972, equipped with state-of-the-art autopsy facilities and drug-testing, ballistics, and tissue-evaluation equipment. And Noguchi was among the first big-city medical examiners to put together a staff of specially trained crime-scene experts.

Death weds the body to the crime scene. And tradition, wary of unwittingly destroying vital clues, invariably leaves the body unexamined until autopsy. Noguchi, always the iconoclast, is a proponent of the spot test of the corpse at the scene. Evidence, he notes, can be everything -- but rarely is it self-evident. Recognition of patterns overrules "mindless collecting of lab samples." An abstract painter, he envisions his task as "the reconstruction of a sequence of events, integrating everything down to the minutest detail" -- an intrinsically artistic obsession.

In the Seventies Noguchi began to appear with ever-increasing regularity on radio and TV. It wasn't enough to appear as an expert witness in courthouses across the country, presenting startling new forms of evidence to skeptical judges and wide-eyed juries. Noguchi seemed compelled to report his findings -- to spell out scenarios in all their intimate detail -- to the public. Critics felt he was more than just an exuberant scientist acting as a cheerleader for his profession. Pejoratively billed as "Coroner to the Stars" and "The Celebrity Coroner," Noguchi was accused of basking in a rather tarnished limelight and of literally trying to "steal the last scene" from Hollywood greats of two decades.

But as a scientist-doctor, Noguchi believes, the chief medical examiner is a public servant who must answer to his real constituency -- the living. Given the prevalence of media hype, the distortion and fabrication of evidence in police and FBI crime labs, and the willful misrepresentation of this evidence in court, the coroner is the watchdog for the quality of life in the community. Autopsy, says Noguchi, is "the ultimate means of quality control for all medical care." Also, abuse of children and the elderly, rapes and drownings, defective appliances, unsafe work conditions, environmental and food pollution, insurance scams all fall within his jurisdiction.

That responsibility to the public ended in 1982, when he was forced to quit the medical examiner's office. It was not the public's disapproval of his alleged "publicity-hound shenanigans" or "mismanagement of his office" that did him in. It was primarily money and the bureaucratic mind: The ghost of Proposition 13 had cast an ever-lengthening shadow over all public-works funding. And finally, Noguchi's all-too-graphic reconstruction of William Holden's last violent, solitary moments gave the county supervisors the excuse they needed. Meeting in closed session, they demanded his resignation. (Still numb from the news, Noguchi called up his office and was told John Belushi had died. Never one to wait on protocol, he went to examine the body of the dead comedian.)

During the months that followed, Noguchi instigated a civil-service hearing and -- solidly endorsed by police, co-workers, and forensic leaders -- won recommendation for reinstatement in February 1983. Nonetheless, 13 days later the Civil Service Commission voted to override the decision: Noguchi was fired.

Despite an unsuccessful appeal, he is anything but bitter. As a full professor of pathology at Loma Linda University, the University of Southern California, and the University of California at Los Angeles School of Medicine, Noguchi is presently instructing interns, residents of pathology, and postgraduate physicians in anatomic and forensic pathology. He coauthored Coroner, a best-selling account of his most spectacular cases, and its sequel, Coroner at Large, in which he interprets notorious and controversial court cases outside his own jurisdiction and unravels forensic puzzles from history. Today he hasn't quite decided whether his third book will be a study of the terrorist mind or an "investigation of death by stabbing, concentrating on wounds and weaponry."

Noguchi was interviewed on four successive evenings at home in Pasadena by writer Douglas Stein. Finishing after 10:00 PM on Saturday, the two drove off to celebrate at one of Noguchi's favorite restaurants, The Plum Tree, in Chinatown. Before taking their order, the waitress said, "Dr. Noguchi, you are the second celebrity here tonight. The first was Superman."

OMNI

What does your approach entail?

Noguchi

The medical examiner begins by visiting the crime or death scene to see for himself the circumstances surrounding the incident. Then he directs his investigators to interview witnesses and collect evidence -- including the clothing of the deceased. He supervises the documentation of the event with layer-by-layer photography. Specimens are taken for toxicological study. But more important, after the autopsy is performed and data assembled, he should address himself to the traditional "five W's." What was the cause of death? Where did it happen? When it happened -- time of death -- connects both to the sequence of events and the reason why it happened. The last W, of course, is who -- the person responsible.

Generally, a medical examiner does not address these issues. He thinks that as a scientist, he needn't worry about them. I think that's wrong! Only when you look from the standpoint of a lawyer, judge, or detective will you be able to interpret evidence.

OMNI

What instruments do you use to investigate a crime scene?

Noguchi

Many tools are such everyday items as the magnifying glass, six-power binoculars, and surgical forceps. Less well-known are ultraviolet devices for detection of such fluorescent materials as lipstick and semen, and infrared for objects that retain heat. Portable X rays are used to see through walls, uncovering hidden bullets and other crime clues.

Occasionally I take a small lab to the scene. The great dilemma is whether to move the body or to examine it on the spot. The degree of lividity, or discoloration, of the body is helpful in estimating how long it may have been in a particular position. Lividity will pick up an almost Xerox copy of an image -- show prints or impressions of an object contacting the body. Suppose a person has lain on a coin -- it's maybe two or three minutes after we move the body that lividity changes. The exact markings of the coin, like the configurations of the face, will be clearly apparent.

OMNI

Is Alphonse Bertillon's technique applied today?

Noguchi

Yes. Bertillon believed that everyone is built differently. He realized that by measuring specific body features you could individualize criminals so they couldn't disguise themselves. Fingerprinting, however, replaced his method, Bertillonage, so those techniques were pretty much forgotten. I, however, brought Bertillon into the twentieth century when I used the same techniques in the case of Elmer McCurdy. There was a dummy hanging at the Six Million Dollar Man shooting location at Nu-Pike fun house in Long Beach, California. Some suggested the dummy was a mummy made of McCurdy, the notorious Oklahoma-Kansas railroad bandit, killed in a shoot-out in 1911. Because bones don't shrink after death and we had a picture of McCurdy at the time of death, we were able to superimpose it onto an X ray of the dummy. The skeletons lined up exactly, and the identification was positive.

This technique can go both ways: Forensic sculptors are beginning to reconstruct the contours of a face almost from the skull. Perhaps you've seen the movie Gorky Park, where the Soviet forensic scientist puts the muscles and flesh back on the girl's skull? It's a difficult procedure but useful in tracing missing persons.

We tend to be preoccupied with the dead body, but I suggest that the body, or its surroundings, be examined last. Much evidence is actually staring back at you, but it may not be on the corpse. People often ignore the ceiling, one area I always look to for clues. Spattered blood may be on it, for instance. We've often found drugs stashed behind acoustic tiles. Sometimes tiles are replaced to conceal bullet holes.

OMNI

Once in the autopsy room, what tools do you use?

Noguchi

Of course, the scale is a vital instrument: It can tell me a lot about the cause of death. Generally a heart weighs about three hundred fifty grams, so if I find one weighing seven hundred grams, I know only certain conditions could have caused this -- such as hypertension, arteriosclerosis, and certain lung diseases. After a drowning lungs often weigh between eight hundred and nine hundred grams, whereas a normal lung weighs about three hundred grams. If a lung weighs more than a thousand grams, there must either be a tumor or pneumonia.

Chronic drug use changes organ weight. Narcotic addicts' lungs are heavy because the injected junk contains additives. The Iymph nodes around the heart enlarge and contain crystals -- mostly talc, sometimes fibers. Talc, like asbestos, scars the lungs. Many Iymph glands, the spleen, and the liver are unusually enlarged because these organs are struggling to break down and detoxify drugs. Drugs are hard, too, on endocrine glands. Often the adrenal glands, whose work increases with stress, show gross changes. Chronic drug use also causes a wasting of the gonads.

OMNI

Why your persistent fascination with the wound itself?

Noguchi

My interest in wounds and bruises ties into the cause-and-effect relationship. What caused the bruise and how long it's been in existence help to identify the assailant. It used to be a simple distinction between a recent or old bruise, but now we are recognizing more characteristics, from which we can learn a great deal. A bruise with scratches or abrasions not only yields an impression of the object but also gives the direction and force of the application. Did the person fall, or was he struck by the object?

Bruises have a whole spectrum of color changes. The fresh bruise is usually purplish, the classic black-and-blue -- with swelling. After a day or two it moves to purplish red, then reddish brown to light brown, and then yellow. Before turning yellow it often takes on a greenish hue. The cycle usually takes two weeks, although a deep-seated bruise can take longer to resolve. Histamine and serotonin are the first chemicals to appear upon injury. We hope to define these changes more in terms of hourly intervals by using the electron microscope and sophisticated analyses that target certain chemicals and enzymes.

OMNI

We've arrived at the classic dilemma: Did the wound happen before, after, or at the moment of death?

Noguchi

That's always a great challenge. If it happened before death, the wound should show some tissue reaction, whether bleeding or first signs of healing. After death a bruise doesn't occur because there's no blood pressure to cause swelling. A knife wound after death, where the skin is cut and subcutaneous tissue is exposed, has a pale yellow appearance -- without bloodstains.

The couple of seconds around death is known as the perimortem. Blood pressure is sufficiently down, so tissue reactions are vague. The heart is no longer functioning, but blood is still fluid. If I give a severe blow by hand, muscles contract. Sometimes a blow at this stage will create the appearance of a bruise, but the swelling is often lacking; there's skin and tissue breakage, but you get only a leakage rather than a hemorrhage, as when blood is actively pumped into the wound.

It's often nerve-racking to deal with these phenomena -- whether the person is still alive or just dead. But it helps in establishing a sequence of events. Many times a person facing an assailant is shot in front and then, realizing the need to escape, turns and runs. He then receives several more shots all over. The first shot shows a typical full-blown antemortem [before-death] reaction. But when the victim is shot through the heart, the blood pressure drops quickly, so tissue reaction is reduced, telling us enough to establish the sequence of wounds.

OMNI

Rigor mortis is oneoof the ultimate cliches of bad horror movies. What's really going on?

Noguchi

Rigor generally develops after about an hour and almost always in a descending order. The jaw and neck stiffen first, then the shoulders and upper arms, followed by the fingers; and the legs are last. Full rigor takes ten to twelve hours to complete. This gradually lessens, and twenty-four to thirty-six hours after death usually no rigidity is seen. When rigor mortis subsides, it is usually in this same descending order, with the jaw becoming loose, the neck supple, and finally the leg relaxing -- almost like magic. This top-to-bottom order was a mystery for several centuries, but now we understand why. After death oxygen is no longer supplied to muscles through blood circulation. The resulting lactic-acid buildup causes muscle fibers to become swollen and coagulated, thus stiffer and stiffer. Why the descending order? Because muscle fiber is very short in the jaw, a little longer in the neck, and longest in the leg. When muscles loosen, it's because tissues decay and the smallest fibers break down first.

OMNI

With the creation of the Forensic Science Center, you were a pioneer in using high-tech equipment for analysis.

Noguchi

Decades ago we used only a large magnifying glass to study wounds. And we still use it. But in the last ten years we've begun to use sophisticated instruments long available to other scientific fields. The scanning electron microscope [SEM] is indeed our top weapon against criminals. My department was the first in the country to purchase the SEM with an energy-dispersive spectrometer. The SEM magnifies up to a hundred thousand times. The energy-dispersive spectrometer determines the composition of the particles magnified by the SEM and identifies the proportions of the various elements. Today the L.A. medical examiner's office uses a third-generation SEM to analyze wound debris that is invisible to the eye.

A man is shot, for example, and the bullets go completely through him and are lost. How do we trace the gun? Okay, we excise the entry and exit wounds and place sections under the SEM. Because any object passing through living skin leaves a tiny trace, we learn the composition of the bullet. Bullets are all different: A Colt is different from a Remington. And there is the residue of the bullet casing: When a gun is fired the pin strikes the primer, which explodes into gas, which pushes the bullet into the barrel. The SEM can tell the type of casing -- usually a copper-zinc combination. From a casing composition that's marred with barrel scrapings, we can often get back to the specific gun.

But that's not good enough for me. What about the primer? It's usually a combination of lead, antimony, or bismuth. The bullet carries the primer material into the wound. Primers vary from batch to batch. So somewhere in the wound track, usually at entry and exit, these signs of primer, casing, and bullet are dropped. There are all kinds of "fingerprints." One of my favorites is the wound itself and its contents.

OMNI

What about the transmission electron microscope [TEM]?

Noguchi

The TEM is toxicological, not ballistic. It projects images of tissue cross sections up to powers of a half million. We can see molecules, viruses, and can visualize the damage done to cells in poison cases. I have seen a revolution in drug-testing analysis. When I joined this office in 1960, we depended mostly on paper chromatography. We could distinguish Nembutal from Seconal this way. Next came the ultraviolet [UV] spectrometer. This uses a UV beam to project drugs, almost like curves on a graph. Various drugs show different degrees of absorption on a UV beam. Barbiturates such as Nembutal and Seconal are absorbed in a similar area. Gas chromatography, which specifically isolates each drug, was available but not fully used in 1962, when Monroe died. Today our most powerful, definitive instrument is a gas chromatograph hooked into a mass spectrometer with a computer system (GCMS). It analyzes drugs down to the molecule and is essential to differentiate various hallucinogens. You could, say, distinguish between a billionth of a gram of LSD and PCP with it.

OMNI

Have death rates for drugs changed throughout the twentieth century?

Noguchi

Drug addiction is, sadly, a constant in modern culture. Only the specific drugs change. Prior to World War II, barbiturates and heroin predominated. During the Fifties amphetamines and other stimulants gained popularity. In 1966 and 1967 there was a heroin-overdose crisis, largely centered on returning Vietnam-vet addicts. The period from 1966 to 1972 had the highest incidence of drug-related deaths, mostly due to heroin. Other lethal drugs were barbiturates, methaqualone, Darvon, and a combination of prescription drugs. Today cocaine and phencyclidine -- PCP -- are really endemic to L.A. and San Francisco.

PCP came on the scene rather suddenly. Unlike cocaine and heroin, it can be manufactured in a garage. You don't need a degree in chemistry. Even today most PCP busts are made when the garage explodes, the fire department rushes in, and we find huge, clandestine laboratories. Generally the hot-water heater is in the garage. The PCP process requires ether extraction, and ether is a heavy substance that stays on the ground. All of a sudden, boom -- the whole building is aflame.

OMNI

It's said that PCP triggers violence.

Noguchi

More than any other drug -- and self-inflicted, too. For example, at five-thirty one morning, while people were waiting for the bus, a nude man was seen fighting with a telephone pole. Then he began fighting with the police and eventually suffered multiple gunshot wounds. But before that he managed to pull apart some Smith & Wesson handcuffs. We were amazed when we found they had not been defective; we subjected an identical pair to an engineering stress test. It took over five hundred pounds per square inch to break them. Sure enough, he'd broken his wrist in the process but felt no pain. Many studies have failed to explain this PCP reaction.

Another case: Another naked man went up to his room on the second floor of an apartment building and jumped out of the building, saying he was flying like a bird. He landed, got up, and then climbed to the third floor and leaped, this time breaking a leg. Then he went up to the fourth floor and jumped farther, unfortunately landing on a fence. He suffered major injuries and died. This sort of horrible incident is fairly typical: Once simply will not do for the person on hallucinogens.

OMNI

With Monroe, wasn't it a question of suicide versus murder: whether the fatal drugs were swallowed or injected?

Noguchi

The autopsy found a large amount of Nembutal and chloral hydrate, but the case wasn't typical because the stomach was empty. I did not see any residue, although the stomach and gastric lining were much reddened. But this is standard for barbiturate abuse. And this was not the first time we'd seen an empty stomach. Like the liver, it gets used to handling the drug and passes it quickly into the small intestine. Because I couldn't find needle marks, I still believe the drugs were swallowed.

Monroe's liver actually had a level of stored barbiturates three to four times that of her blood. Yet her blood level was high enough -- equivalent to about forty or fifty capsules of regular-strength sleeping pills. For the average person, ten to fifteen are potentially lethal.

OMNI

Even so, doesn't that show that someone, maybe her therapist or nurse, for instance, injected her with these drugs?

Noguchi

This challenge has been made -- and even today I don't think we can tell. Some speculate that she may have been injected in a difficult-to-detect area like the scalp.

OMNI

What about that bruise on her hip that you find so mysterious? Could that have been a cover for a needle track?

Noguchi

What does that bruise mean? I don't know! Your idea is interesting. With an injection you have only minute skin breakage, and of course, after some hours it starts healing. When death occurs shortly after the injection, as with John Belushi, the breakage of the skin is still visible, and by squeezing the skin you can see the blood come out. But in Monroe's case I could not find a needle mark on the bruised area.

OMNI

You note that her therapist used to inject her. He saw her the day before. Would that give the track time to heal?

Noguchi

I would think so. I think she received an injection from him twenty-four hours prior to her death. There are many mysteries. I recommended that an agency such as a grand jury or D.A.'s office reopen the case.

OMNI

Why are we so obsessed with how Monroe died?

Noguchi

Perhaps this case keeps returning because she was one of the last superstars and in many ways an American dream. But I think most of our concern and inquiry is really about her relation to the Kennedy brothers. It's this amazing double involvement with those figures, who were as charismatic as she -- both of whom were assassinated.

OMNI

In many instances, whether it be after the death of Robert Kennedy or John Belushi, you've shown yourself to be a man who doesn't wait on protocol. Isn't this legally as well as politically risky?

Noguchi

Yes, but the coroner just hasn't been active enough in handling death investigations at the scene. Traditionally, a number of no-man's-lands exist. Police don't move in, coroner doesn't move in. Who's going to take over? For example, after a torrential rain the whole topsoil of the old cemetery in Verdugo Hills, California, started sliding. It happened to contain over a hundred bodies that floated first across the street, then into the yards and into the living rooms of houses and the doorway of the supermarket. It was a tragic scene. My staff tried to ascertain who had jurisdiction by calling a county lawyer. I said, "Forget it, I am going." I was the first on the scene to represent a governmental agency, and I ordered the public works' heavy bulldozers in. Those bodies posed a health hazard. So we moved.

The Verdugo Hills persons had drowned in a flood and had been buried soaking wet in caskets. These bodies changed to an almost soaplike consistency that resists decay. The corpses looked more like horror-movie ghouls than ordinary corpses. Adipocere, as it's called, happens when a combination of moisture and highly alkaline soil reacts with fat tissue and solidifies into a soaplike consistency.

OMNI

You say an investigator must be systematic and detached. But you often do spontaneous spot tests. Is there a conflict?

Noguchi

I say, "Jump right in but stay remote." That's me in particular. I'd like to think it's not a conflict but a wise choice. In one case a lady kidnapped from a supermarket outside L.A. was found dead in a field in L.A. Was she killed in another county or here? After walking through the field, I saw the body. She looked like, well, she'd been dumped. By examining her body through her clothing, I thought I could tell whether she'd been shot and brought by truck, since there were tire treads. By cutting through her dress and evaluating the wound, I concluded that she'd been shot right there, and the assailant had to get out of the truck to shoot her -- it was an execution-type shooting. His footprints allowed us to catch him. If I'd waited to do the autopsy, those prints would have disappeared.

OMNI

When you autopsied Robert Kennedy, you began at the toe. Is this a "ceiling-down" procedure applied to the body?

Noguchi

Exactly. I am very concerned with getting too close to the dead body -- one may lose the overall grasp. I chose to begin the RFK autopsy from the toe to make sure I didn't overlook anything. I didn't want to be influenced by the injury alone. I was under great pressure. The more the pressure, the more steadfast I become, and that is a style a medical detective should have.

The senator had three gunshot wounds -- a head wound behind his right ear and two through the right armpit. To reconstruct a scenario of the shooting, the gunshot wound to the head wouldn't tell us much, except how close the assailant may have been. We must remember the body is constantly moving, with arms especially changing position. When you examine a body, it's in a horizontal state, so I had to physically and mentally place his body in an upright position to interpret the wound configurations. When a bullet penetrates the skin, it generally leaves a round hole. But the wound to the senator's armpit was not round. To make it round, I had to move the arm fifteen degrees forward after raising it to ninety degrees. I had to do that to understand the relation of the bullet corridor within the body to the body's movement. The senator's head wound came from a back-to-front direction; the second wound was on the side, and the third was slightly shifted, indicating he was turning clockwise. From this reenactment it's probable that the head wound was the first one, and RFK raised his arm after it in a protective reaction. The sequence of shots hasn't been absolutely established, but that's my opinion.

We know that the three gunshot wounds were at close range. I had my staff construct a likeness of Kennedy's head and attach pig ears to this model, which was covered with cloth to absorb gunpowder. We hoped to create identical powder tattooings found at the edge of the right ear by using the suspected weapon and by shooting from various distances into the right mastoid. Moving away by distances of an inch, only when the muzzle was three inches behind the mastoid, around one inch behind the edge of the ear, did I get the exact duplicate of the actual death-shot powder tattoo. We also did infrared photography and X rays of the bits of hair taken from around the wound. This determined the powder spread and confirmed the pig ear test.

When I testified before the grand jury, the deputy D.A. said, "You mean three feet?" I said, "No, three inches." And he said, "If you made a mistake, you can still change it." But I said [laughs], "I'm not going to change it."

OMNI

What made the RFK investigation such a prototype for future political deaths?

Noguchi

It was exceptionally complete, and there were official observers. The examination of his clothing, especially the removal of bits of hair for testing prior to his surgery, was not then typical. To reenact the sequence of events of his shooting, we needed expert examination from many agencies. This greatly expanded our notion of relevant physical evidence.

OMNI

How do forensic scientists differ from other scientists?

Noguchi

The public expects unusual personalities, but we are temperamentally similar to lab researchers. Yet medical detectives are congenial and able to work closely with police, juries, and lawyers. Also forensic leaders never give up -- we work at a case even though many years may go by. Gallows humor, or better, morgue humor, is a safety valve for us. Because of the pressure of being surrounded by dead bodies and death scenes, we tend to see matters in a different vein.

OMNI

Do you see forensic science and detection as an art form?

Noguchi

I do. I think my style is unique. Each step is a new experience. If someone is to break tradition, I will be the first to break it. My interest in art morphology -- oil painting and sketching -- subconsciously helps me. The pathologist should recognize patterns as a visual art. At the death scene I probably see the same things colleagues or detectives see. I'm not only seeing; I'm recognizing and putting factors together. There's this different energy and intensity -- a sympathy, a burning desire to put it all together into a more understandable language. The deceased is speaking to you through forensic evidence that is glaring at you. But few recognize it.

OMNI

Your style seems to balance an Eastern receptivity with American assertiveness.

Noguchi

I try to reconcile them. Part of the unique combination, perhaps, comes from my Buddhist upbringing. In Japan death is very close and friendly. It's common for the family to have a miniature temple in the living room, where the children are expected to greet deceased grandparents by reporting the day's activities. Just before examination, although most of my staff doesn't notice it, I take a very short moment to respect the deceased. "Let the deceased speak for himself" is one of my favorite expressions. I repeat it to resident pathologists. I listen, not just look -- listen deeply. Bits of evidence are like words. By putting the evidence together you compose a sentence. The series of sentences becomes the statement of the deceased -- the deceased is the best witness.

Forensic investigation is like moviemaking but in reverse. We arrive just after the last scene of the cowboy movie -- after the cowboys have been surrounded by the American Indians. Did the Union soldiers come to the rescue or not? From the available evidence -- fragments of the last scene of the fighting -- we try to make each frame, then the one before, and finally the whole movie. We kind of roll the projector backward -- to the title.

OMNI

Is the media notion of the "battle of the forensic titans" in court testimony hype or reality?

Noguchi

We aren't so emotional. We accept different opinions. Sometimes we are on the same side of the case, sometimes on opposite sides. And we clearly understand that if you are a "professional witness," your career will go badly. I greatly respected the late Keith Simpson [famous British coroner], though we disagreed on several big cases, including Marilyn Monroe. He thought the empty stomach showed she was injected and murdered. It was just the opposite with Roberto Calvi, where I thought he was murdered.

OMNI

Would you go into that 1981 case?

Noguchi

Calvi was a very respected top banker for the Vatican. He rose to prominence through special political connections, including Michele Sindona and his underworld associates. Weeks before Calvi died, four hundred million dollars disappeared. He fled to London and shortly thereafter was found hanging at Blackfriar's Bridge on the Thames about seven A.M. He was last seen alive about eleven P.M. the night before. Calvi's clothes were wet up to the armpits, meaning he was submerged in water at one time or another. High tide was about two-fifty A.M., but when the body was found at seven, it was almost low tide. If he were trying to hang himself, why would he jump into the water first? He was genuinely hanged -- he had the classic signature of hanging in terms of neck abrasions.

At the first coroner's inquest, Simpson, who conducted the initial autopsy, said that it was a typical suicide hanging. But at the second inquest, when questioned by the attorney for Calvi's family, he admitted he couldn't be absolutely certain whether Calvi hanged himself or was hanged by someone else. It was never ascertained whether the hanging was suicide or homicide, and the jury rendered an open verdict, meaning they couldn't decide either.

OMNI

Didn't you suggest that he could have been immobilized, but not killed, by a drug not traceable after a few hours?

Noguchi

There are many compounds -- which, in the public interest, I'm reluctant to name -- that were difficult to trace. Now we can find most of them with the GCMS, provided we have computer data to cross-compare with our findings. More than two thousand compounds have been studied and are available for comparison. But some haven't been molecularly analyzed, so even the GCMS can't fathom the secret there. I suggested that Calvi was injected with a strong muscle relaxant extremely difficult to trace.

Some hallucinogens, you see, metabolize so quickly that the original compound cannot be established. Because more and more drugs have half-lives of thirty minutes or less, our effort is now concentrated on finding the metabolites that linner for longer times. These can be pulled from the urine, kidney, or liver, depending on the drug. Some drugs, especially antidepressants and stimulants, have special affinities for brain nerve cells.

OMNI

You've considered many cases with missed evidence and fabrications in the lab. Are police, FBI, and military investigators often corrupt and incompetent?

Noguchi

I hope this isn't common, but in the major cases we find it often. These agencies have a tremendous stake in convicting an individual -- a mission to accomplish. And bungling and distortion of evidence have become more critical in the last twenty years because juries have grown to rely on forensic evidence as the prime basis for decision. They used to rely on confession, circumstantial evidence, eyewitness testimony. That was before forensic science entered the picture.

As I see it, the judicial system -- with its imperfections -- has actually stimulated development of forensic science. Theatrical display has its place in court, but overall, painstaking evidence-presentation seems to be winning the well-publicized cases. Jack Ruby, the murderer of Lee Harvey Oswald, was represented by Melvin Belli, a very powerful, dramatic attorney. And the results were not as good as expected. Even F. Lee Bailey has had some recent failings. Some of today's best lawyers are not colorful but very, very systematic. They try to plug all holes, make a case watertight. The styles of the scientist and the lawyer begin to converge. When science enters the courtroom, theatrical display exits.

OMNI

Why is it that eyewitness accounts are often distorted?

Noguchi

The human brain has a remarkable selectivity and subjectivity. Let's say you see this beautiful South Pacific beach. So you take a photograph but later are disappointed: You are looking at reality, and it is not nearly as beautiful as your remembered image. Well, testimony is very subjective -- people being influenced by their likings, past experience, and sounds. People see a crime in a split second, so their memories are highly imprecise. They may pick up a certain area, totally forgetting others. Putting all eyewitness accounts together, I'd say the repeated statements are probably the most reliable.

OMNI

Are crime patterns and percentages in L.A. different from those of other major cities?

Noguchi

L.A. County had fifty-five thousand people die in 1985; of those, we investigated about seventeen thousand. Suicide victims totaled about fifteen hundred; traffic accidents were slightly under fifteen hundred. Other accidents were around one thousand. About eighteen hundred were homicide victims. The remaining ten thousand to eleven thousand were certified as death by natural causes. The drug scene in L.A. is quite different from other cities'. L.A. now leads in the heavy use of stimulants, and we are now concerned about designer drugs that tend to begin as at-home chemistry operations, catch on, then move east. Constantly changing the design of the drug has been a means of circumventing the law. This is a sort of chemical serial murder -- Jack the Ripper in chemical form. The drug designer keeps moving; when the authorities enact a law making a specific substance illegal, he simply jumps into other areas.

And there are certain unique reasons why the L.A. drug problem continues. Hollywood has created a kind of artificial all-or-none attitude. This is the entertainment capital of the world, and competition is especially intense. With a hit film or record comes great prestige, glamour, wealth -- and terrible pressure to sustain yourself.

OMNI

Could you describe your invention, the negative knife cast?

Noguchi

Knife wounds are frustrating because there seem to be no identifying characteristics. But I thought maybe we could trace a knife from its wound, like we do a gun from its bullet hole. When the knife reaches a solid organ like the liver, kidney, heart, or occasionally the brain, there's an excellent opportunity to make a negative cast. We can fill the stab wound with a radioactive medium such as barium sulphate and X-ray it. The X ray gives you the shape of the knife, but it's essentially a two-dimensional picture -- not really good enough. I researched many materials, things like dental fillings, and found they all were too lightweight. None showed the detail I wanted, until I found a metal containing mercury, called Wood's metal, which liquefies at the temperature of boiling water. You inject it into the stab wound by syringe, and it solidifies within five minutes. When you pull it out, you've got a three-D copy of the knife. Sometimes the tip of the knife reaches bone, and the tiniest bit breaks off. That tip is like a fingerprint.

OMNI

Will fingerprinting be suprrseded by more foolproof techniques?

Noguchi

Crime detection will continue to use common sense. Most fascinating to me, though, is the DNA probe, which I'm contemplating developing within a few years as a means of identifying rapists. [DNA probes are synthetic fragments of DNA that can pinpoint the precise location of a specific gene or detect a faulty gene on an individual's chromosomes.] If you had the semen, with the probe you could obtain the chromosomes -- unique as fingerprints. The DNA probe is an exciting instrument for understanding genetic abnormalities. Maybe we could go from the DNA probe to an understanding of the combination of genes that lead an individual to murder and rape -- a fusion of genetic and psychological profiles. I don't know how far we can go, but within a decade or two we'll have a method for enzyme-protein individualization as part of the identification process.

I hope to see the day when we do neurochemical studies of the deceased. Profiles of adrenaline, norepinephrine, serotonin may tell us much about the psychology of the dead person. We've been conducting "psychological" autopsies for twenty-five years -- let's add neurochemical investigation of the spinal fluid and brain tissue.

And there is an absolutely futuristic idea -- like something out of Dick Tracy This is the concept of the retina as a photographic film: I see you, my murderer, but should I die, that image would remain! This idea is scary -- the "last image" as an electronic impulse that may be recaptured. In computerized tomography we can rotate the CAT machine for an image of the brain. Going further, we could key in an image from the visual center of the occipital area. This is far-out, but I don't want to throw it away completely.

We need a whole battery of electronic and biomedical engineers. They would compute the forces causing such injuries as bruises, contusions, and bone fractures. The applications are widespread: from the understanding of such incidents as the Challenger disaster to the specific dynamics of a boxing-arena death. There is also an important thermal application of biomedical engineering: Rate of body cooling could be used to indicate time of death. I would also like to develop the software for a computer small enough to store much of the background data for evaluating possible evidence at a crime scene. I don't want to wait days or weeks for lab reports. I want to tap into a warehouse of information based on similar cases, similar weapons, so I can make spot tests right away. One cannot, and should not have to, remember the details of all cases in the past. Say I'm looking at a head injury and it shows a specific harpoon shape, one with a bit of a tail. I'd like to know what instrument causes this wound. So I'd compare this imprint of an unknown instrument to those of many thousands of other available weapons.

OMNI

What do you think will be the role of the forensic scientist in the future?

Noguchi

Comprehensive medical-legal investigation will become an integral part of the criminal-justice system. I also expect our work will be applied more to aid the living -- victims of rape and nonfatal child abuse, the injured factory workers in workman-disability cases, the convict requiring medical care in prison. Or suppose a bullet is lodged near the spinal cord, and the assailant is awaiting trial. Because the bullet cannot be removed, its striations cannot be compared directly to those of the gun barrel. Techniques do exist to identify this bullet while it's still in the victim's body, but our profession has not stepped in to implement them.

The medical examiner should master a specific curriculum. The days when anyone with experience in handling dead bodies can join the coroner's office should be passe. The University of Southern California hopes to establish a program leading to a Ph.D. in forensic medicine by 1987. And the subject of death should be continuously talked about in more honest terms. The American tradition of whitewash eulogies, of letting sleeping dogs lie, of not writing anything about death, is injurious to the living. There are lessons to be learned from death. And because these death events are repeated over and over again, we must strive to understand them.

OMNI

What do you think of Quincy? Was the TV show really modeled on you?

Noguchi

Jack Klugman asked me to endorse the production. I provided all the technical help by assigning two of my deputies to the cast, and the first four hours of the series were shot in our office. The presentation is accurate, though highly dramatized, with many episodes being composites of two or more real cases. I've often joked that the only difference is that Quincy solves the crime in one hour, while it takes us many months. I like Quincy because it expands my concept of going beyond the traditional responsibility of the medical examiner, which I firmly believe we have the right to do.

OMNI

As a painter, haven't you tried to render the essence of your experience?

Noguchi

I'm interested in giving artistic representation to the crime scene. Most people perceive the dead body as still and the colors of death as gray, dark green, or black. I see intense energy and use intense colors -- mostly red, orange -- warm colors. I've been asked if I believe in reincarnation. In literal terms of past lives and such, I don't, but the concept of the separation of the spirit from the body at death is very real to me.

OMNI

Why is the perfect crime so difficult to execute?

Noguchi

A killer usually chooses the most comfortable method, one that ties into his upbringing. You just cannot intellectually conjure up a sophisticated murder without the background. Most killers are conformists -- whether the small knife for Latinos or the sword, with its symbolic message, for the samurai. And then, it's impossible for a person to enter and leave a house with absolutely no trace: There is always an exchange -- oil, soil, fiber. It takes a really sharp intellect to handle this well. And disposing of the body is a very great problem requiring special transportation. Time tends to be a problem, since most crimes are committed in a hurry. I can theoretically create a very clean murder, but I don't think I could actually do it. First, I know it is wrong; and second, I get nervous because I know so much about how it can be detected. You see, most murders are committed by amateurs. There is no university degree in how to commit murder. There is no standard test. And you cannot easily practice.

OMNI

Please continue.

Noguchi

I rest my case. [Pause] Well, okay. Most crimes are still committed by a person known to have something to gain, especially revenge, by the killing. From motive comes lead. Many unsolved murders are those where the killer seems to have no personal connection to the victim -- the nameless, senseless killing is very difficult. I believe, however, some murderer will soon start to use very sophisticated, remote instruments. Of course, I'm very reluctant to say just what. It's not appropriate for me to describe, step by step, how you can commit the perfect murder. And I've been asked many, many times. [Pause] One could maybe simulate a natural event, like a heart attack, where in fact the heart attack was induced . . . .



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