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ТОМ 4, СТ. X (сc. X) // Апрель, 2003 г.

DEATH BY ELECTROCUTION IN THE BATHTUB

B. Bockholdt, V. Schneider
Institute of Forensic Medicine
University Hospital Benjamin Franklin, Free University of Berlin
Summary



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In the forensic literature reports dealing with a special phenomenon in cases of death by electrocution in the bathtub are rare. This special finding was described as a "border-zone-phenomenon" a pale stripe on the skin corresponding to the water level.

In this study 41 cases of death by electrocution in the bathtub were investigated. A clear cutaneous electric mark was described in 16 cases and the "phenomenon" on the skin was found in two cases. The histological investigation of this region (in one case) provided no typical signs of a cutaneous electric mark.

Introduction

The problems of investigation of cases of death (by electrocution) in the bathtub are well known. There has been a remarkable increase in the number of "electrical tragedies" in the bathtub in Berlin in the nineties in contrast to the seventies and eighties (Schneider, Püschel et al.). The diagnosis "death by electrocution" is a result of comprehensive cooperation of forensic pathologists, forensic toxicologists and the police investigators, because there are no typical autopsy findings for this cause of death and the circumstances are often not clear. An extreme example is electrocution in the bathtub; where an electric mark (electrical burns) may not be existant. In various publications the frequency of typical cutaneous electric marks are 60% (Schneider), 43% (Püschel et al.), 17% (Bonte et al.) or 55% (Gilg). In the forensic literature Holzer first described a phenomenon, seen on the skin of bodies found dead in bathtubs filled with water. The indicator was a stripe parallel to the surface of the water. The mark was characterized by paleness and a clearly less distinct formation of postmortem alterations. The same finding was described in publications by Bonte (10 cases), Schwerd (1 case), Püschel et al. (1 case), Weiler and Risse (1 case), Kallieris et al. (5 cases), whereas Schneider found no cases of this phenomenon in his comprehensive investigation. The description of this "phenomenon" differed - but in all reports the authors noticed a pale stripe on the skin corresponding to the water level. Searching for an explanation, temperature measurements, were performed in a model by Wollenek et al. The results of this investigation were: The marks demonstrate an extended period of time in which the corpse remained in the corresponding position, that is consistent with this pale mark as a statement concerning the height of the water level and allows reconstruction of the original situation. Experimental investigations by Schwerd determined that this finding can be produced post mortem, but is less pronounced. Schwerd described the typical changes of a cutaneous electric mark in his histological investigations. The aim of our study was to investigate cases of death by electrocution in the bathtub with special emphasis on the linear marks, corresponding to the water level.

Materials and Methods

41 cases of death by electrocution in the bathtub were investigated. The autopsies were performed in the Institute of Forensic Medicine of the Free University of Berlin and the Institute of Forensic and Social Medicine Berlin over a period of five years (from 1995 to 1999). We studied the autopsy protocols placing special emphasis on the incidence of typical cutaneous electric marks in general and especially the incidence of the linear paleness phenomenon on the skin corresponding to the water level.

Results

From 1995 to 1999 a total of 41 cases of death by electrocution in the bathtub were investigated. 19 males (46%) and 22 females (54%). The median age for males was 46 years and for females 59 years. In our study, 38 victims were found in filled bathtubs, in one case the bathtub was without water, 2 victims were found in filled shower cubicles.

Table 1. The frequency of use of various electric appliances

hair dryer

cable

electric heater

table lamp + telephone

electric fan (ventilator)

no concrete information

N = 31

N = 5

N = 1

N = 1

N = 1

N = 2

In 75% of all cases the elctric appliance was a hair dryer (Table 1). In one case two hair dryers and in one case a table lamp and telephone were found in the bathtub; the hair dryer was found, on and functioning in 10 cases. Information about the fuses was given in only three cases - one or more fuses were blown in these three cases. In most cases of electrocution, the main fuse was unaffected. A relevant blood alcohol concentration was found in nine cases.

Figure 1. Circumstances of death.

30 of the cases were suicides (75%). In 11 of the suicides a farewell letter was found; in three cases evidence of another concurrently attempted method of suicide was observed. One case was a homicide, 6 cases were declared as "accidental" and in 4 cases the autopsy findings and the inquiries of the police did not allow a clear determination of the circumstances of death. Information concerning clothing in all cases was rare; concrete information was given in only 11 cases. (1 victim was fully dressed, 4 victims were scantily clad and 6 victims were nude) Signs of drowning were found in 7 cases, 2 of these victims had a clear cutaneous electric mark.

Cutaneous electric mark:

A clear cutaneous electric mark was found in 16 cases. A clear distinction was possible in 35 cases; (the investigation of the skin in 6 cases was difficult, due to intensive putrefaction).

"Phenomenon" on the skin:

In two cases a clear mark of linear paleness with blisters, corresponding to the water level was observed. Figure 2 showes a pale stripe with blisters on the skin. No signs of a typical electric mark could be observed in the histological investigation.

Discussion

Over a period of five years (1995-1999) in two of the three Institutes of Forensic Medicine in Berlin 41 cases (19 males and 22 females) of death by electrocution in the bathtub were investigated. A majority of females was also confirmed in other investigations (Püschel et al., Schneider, Bonte et al., Gilg). Suicides comprised 75% of all cases, 15% were accidents and one case was a homicide, in four cases the circumstances were not clear. Due to the difficulties in determining the circumstances of death by electrocution, reports in the forensic literature concerning homicides by electrocution are rare (Schwerd, Weiler / Risse, Schneider); as in our study where only one case was clearly determined to be a homicide. A hair dryer was the most frequently used electric appliance (31 cases). In two cases two electric appliances were found in the bathtub. Signs of drowning were seen in our material in seven cases, two of them with typical electric marks. A clear cutaneous electric mark could be detected in 16 cases. In two cases a linear mark with blisters indicating the water level on the skin was observed. Our histological investigations of this region in one case provided no typical signs of the "typical electric mark"; in contrast to the investigations of Schwerd and Lautenbach or Weiler and Risse. They described such findings on corpses from bathtubs and found changes which are caused by a current´s effects in their histological investigations. Under the right circumstances, this phenomenon may occur postmortem, although the intensity is lower (Schwerd, Böhm, Weiler). Wollenek et al. described this finding as a phenomenon of the height of the water level, which can be used for reconstruction of the position of the corpse (border-zone-phenomenon). In accord with our results it is not seen as a sign for vitality and not a typical electric mark. An explanation for the cause of this finding can not be given by the authors at this time.

Literature

Bonte W, Sprung R, Huckenbeck W, Probleme bei der Beurteilung von Stromtodesfällen in der Badewanne, Z Rechtsmedizin 1986; 97: 7-19

Böhm E, Weiler G, Experimentelle Erzeugung horizontaler Strommarken im Wasser, Zentralbl Rechtsmedizin 1985; 27: 879

Gilg T, Zum Stromtod in der Badewanne (München 1964-1987). In: Bauer G. (Hrsg.) Gerichtsmedizin - Festschrift für Wilhelm Holczabek. Franz Deuticke Wien 1988: 79-84

Holzer F J, Verschmorung unter Wasser bei einem Elektrounfall bei 220 Volt, Dtsch Z Ges gerichtl Med 1955; 44: 418-421

Püschel K, Hülsken H, Brinkmann B, Stromtodesfälle in der Badewanne. (Hamburg 1971-1983). Arch Kriminol 1985; 176: 96-100

Schaefer H, Die Einwirkung des elektrischen Stromes auf wichtige innere Organe, Dtsch Z gerichtl Med 1958; 47: 5-28

Schneider V, Zum Elektrotod in der Badewanne, Arch Kriminol 1985; 176: 89-95

Schneider V, Bemerkenswerte Fälle von Strombeibringung durch fremde Hand, Arch Kriminol 1973; 151: 149-1158

Schroeder G, Windus G, Tröger H D, Experimentelle Untersuchungen zur Entstehung linearer Strommarken, Arch Kriminol 1989; 183: 21-28

Schwerd W, Über die Ausbildung von Strommarken bei Einwirken von Elektrizität und Wasser, Dtsch Z gerichtl Med 1959; 49: 218-223

Schwerd W, Lautenbach H L, Mord mit elektrischem Strom in der Badewanne, Arch Kriminol 1960; 126: 33-49

Weiler G, Risse M, Tötung durch elektrischen Strom in der Badewanne, Arch Kriminol 1985; 176: 83-88

Wollenek G, Dietl H, Denk W, Übergangszonenphänomen in der Haut im Badewannenwasser liegender Leichen. In: Bauer G, (Hrsg.) Gerichtsmedizin - Festschrift für Wilhelm Holczabek. Franz Deuticke Wien 1988: 197-208



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