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APRIL 2007

Forensic Pathologist Mark Taff Describes Real Life Crime Solving

By Emily Sherwood, Ph.D.

For many years before his profession was made glamorous by such television shows as CSI and Law and Order, forensic pathologist Dr. Mark L. Taff has been routinely investigating sudden, suspicious and violent deaths in New York City and its environs. The crimes Taff investigates aren’t solved in an hour, though, and they’re usually more complicated than TV might portray. In a fascinating in-person interview, Taff spoke to Education Update about how he works to uncover the truth in his unique medical profession, when the cause of death is due to traumatic injuries, poisoning, or other outside forces.

For a guy whose resume is peppered with seemingly bizarre cases (“Death by fraternity hazing,” “The Santa Claus Syndrome: entrapment in chimneys,” and “Graveside deaths” are some of the more tantalizing titles among the several hundred articles he’s published), Taff will be the first to tell you that he starts with what he calls “an index of suspicion….As a forensic pathologist, I’ve been trained to think ‘dirty.’ I take the approach that everybody I speak to is a murderer until otherwise proven and everyone has been murdered until otherwise proven…and I always work backward from the worst case scenario to a natural death where everybody can go their merry ways and bury Grandpa without any further ado,” he explains.

But that doesn’t mean his investigations are driven by preconceived notions or intuition. Quite the contrary. “It’s always better to do a complete autopsy than a partial autopsy; it’s always better to do a general toxicology screen than not do [one], because once you deviate from protocols and procedures that have evolved over the last thirty years, once you start taking shortcuts, it comes back to burn you,” states Taff emphatically. Every death investigation follows a prescribed six-stage protocol: case history; death scene findings; autopsy (including external exam of clothing, fibers hairs, etc, and internal, surgical exam that looks at organs, tissues, fluids and the like); laboratory examination of specimens (toxicology, serology, trace evidence, etc); bureaucratic/business preservation of the autopsy report; and signing the death certificate.

Taff could recount numerous investigations in which the crime scene suggested a false reality but where adherence to careful forensic protocol led him to an often unexpected truth. In one of Taff’s more unusual cases, a young man who had just broken up with his girlfriend was found dismembered on the Long Island Expressway. Upon arrival at the scene, first responders observed what looked to be a vicious murder. Yet following investigation, Taff and his colleagues ruled the death an intentional suicide, brought about by the victim’s purposefully leaning out of the passenger side of a compact car and hitting a stanchion while driving. The case revealed six of eight criteria that typically indicate vehicular suicide, including a lack of brake marks, a fixed roadside object, driver intoxication and a psychological history of depression. “You connect the dots,” concludes Taff succinctly.

While Taff firmly believes that following the evidence will lead to the truth, he’ll also concede that sometimes there are limitations to science. “Even the bad guy can win out with a little luck and timing,” he admits, adding that cases where “you find a pool of blood and bullet holes but someone has whisked the body away” become circumstantial and require good detective work to find the perpetrator. 

Even with the best pathology and detective work, though, not every case of homicide goes to trial. By law, Taff has an obligation to report deaths where there is suspected foul play to the prosecutor or the district attorney. But that’s where politics come into play: “Then they go through their motions to decide how much evidence they have, and—based on the police investigation—ºhow good a case they have, and they will sometimes prosecute some cases more vigorously than others. Some cases are so-called winners and some cases are so-called losers, and there’s a lot of politics that go on in the district attorney’s office,” explains Taff.

With a twenty-year career under his belt (he’s now one of three people in New York State completely engaged in private practice, providing second opinions to medical examiner’s offices or working collegially to witness a first autopsy), Taff shows no signs of slowing down. In the words of his former mentor, Dr. Werner Spitz of Detroit who wrote the seminal textbook on forensic pathology, his most difficult case is “always the next one.” Each crime presents a unique challenge that keeps his work fresh: “I don’t see the mundane. I see the bizarre. There’s always a new twist,” he remarks. And he’s halfway through a book with the working title of Forensic Vignettes that will put some of his real life cases to paper for a more popularized audience. No doubt there will be a burgeoning market for Taff’s book, as people are dying to satiate their age-old curiosity about “who done it” and “how.” #



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