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A forensic review of the death investigation of late Victoria zayzay: a voice for the voiceless

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Before addressing the pathological findings that were presented so as to establish whether or not the cause of death of the late Ms. Victoria Zayzay could be determined, let me begin by first and foremost extending my heart felt condolence to the bereaved family for their untimely and premature lost.

As this article is intended to provide a minute enlightenment to our Liberian society with regards to forensic death investigation as it relates to this case, it is my hope and prayer that we as a people will hence forth be able to exhibit wisdom where it is needed as this paper points out a few forensic flaws that may have led to the “cause of death” being labelled as undetermined in this case.

Without any further a due, let us begin with an initial news report on this case that was published by the “The New Republic” media source via the famous allafrica.com website which was headlined “Girl Dies in Police Cell”. In this report dated October 22, 2015; the 20 year old decedent died by hanging herself whiles in police custody during the morning hours of October 21, 2015 at the Zone 6 Depot 1. This event was later confirmed by the Liberian National Police through its spokesman, Mr. Sam Collins who also added that the decedent was taken to the Redemption Hospital where she was pronounced dead.

When cross-referenced with a January 29, 2016 report by “The New Dawn” under the title: “What Killed Victoria Zayzay in Police Cell?” It can also be noted that According to spokesman Collins, the late Victoria used her lappa (traditional cloth wrap) to commit suicide by hanging which was facilitated by the gate of her cell. Upon being noticed by officers at the depot, an attempt was also made to rescue her irrespective of her state of helplessness which involved rushing the decedent to the Redemption Hospital for medical care but died unfortunately whiles enroute to the said facility.

With the above statements being presented, one can see that there is a major contradiction in this case and at this point, we must now focus on hanging vs. strangulation, taking into account that the latter which was not mentioned as a possible cause of death within the autopsy report, can occur both manually and by means of ligature as seen in this case.

Reflecting on the former, it must also be known that hanging can only exist if the body of a person is suspended vertically in a complete (both feet held above the ground) or partial (only the toes are in contact with the ground: “tip-toe” stance) manner.

Having briefly discuss two major forms of death that could be solicited with the use of a ligature such a “lappa” in this case, we can now focus on some major issues relating to the autopsy findings of the late Victoria Zayzay by reviewing the following:

1. Taking into consideration that the autopsy was conducted three (3) weeks post-mortem, how was the body being preserved so as to prevent any form of decomposition that would have raised contradictions within the investigation?

This question is based on the fact that report stated that “no bleeding was seen into the strap muscles and surrounding tissues during the internal examination of the neck. From an external standpoint, it was also reported that the body was noted to be in a poor state of preservation which included pathological changes (coloration and marbling) in the facial area”.

Well, these changes as a result of decomposition may have also affected other parts of the body, including the neck region which could have very well obstructed the evaluation of the strap muscles for a supportive outcome (being able to visualize not only bleeding but also possible bruising of the said structures). The same can apply as to why no subconjuctival hemorrhaging (pin-point bleeding that occurs within the inner eyelids as blood flow from the brain to the heart is obstructed. This is commonly seen in victims of hanging and strangulation) was noticed.

2. As mentioned in the autopsy report, it was stated by the commander of the Zone 6 Depot 1 police station that the decedent was found unconscious in the cell with her lappa tied to the cell gate and around her neck whiles sitting on her buttock. At this point in time, she was hurriedly rushed to the Redemption Hospital where she was pronounced dead. Based on this crucial piece of information:

A. Did the police actually rushed an unconscious individual to a medical facility or were they rushing the body of a deceased individual instead due to a state of panic?

This question is based on the fact that the officers apparently had no idea as to how long Ms. Zayzay was in her discovered position needless to say that officers of the Liberian National Police are not trained in rendering Cardio-Pulmonary Resuscitation (CPR), which by the way would have been a first choice of action if they were. From a forensic standpoint as it relates to the manner in which she was discovered, should have been suspected of dying from a self-inflicted strangulation by ligature. This is based on the fact that strangulation causes a series of events such as loss of consciousness due to a diminish supply of oxygenated blood to the brain as vital blood vessels in the neck are being compressed, asphyxia (inability to breathe) as the trachea is being compressed and ultimately and cardiac (heart) failure/arrest due to a reflex action of the carotid sinuses in the neck as they are being compressed since blood pressure and heart rate are manipulated. 

3. Normally, in death by hanging or strangulation, the hyoid bone is always examined so as to establish the presence or absence of a fracture, mainly of the Greater Horn. According to this report, there was no fracture present, a possibility which could disqualify the occurrence by death from hanging as reported earlier by the police. 

However, this is not a fact in every case because fracture of the hyoid bone does not happen easily in individuals younger than forty (40) years of age. The opposite is due to the calcification of the bone (hyoid), Therefore, the non-fracture of the hyoid bone in this case is consider normal but it does not exclude or eliminate the possibility of death by strangulation as it would seem to be.

Finally, giving the fact that our Liberian society is impacted by public sentiments, I hope that the information provided in this paper will prevent the government via the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) from embarking on a “wild goose chase” so as to determine a cause of death in this case since “hanging” has been excluded as reported via the news media. This will also prevent the officers who were assigned at the said depot during this tragic event from being held accountable and charge with providing an unexplained cause as to what may have happened.

I highly advised that the Government of Liberia, use this case as an example so as to prevent future mishaps. This can be done by ensuring that arrestees are no longer allow to retain any kind of ligature device (belt, shoe strings, lappas, long head ties, etc.). During the booking process, such properties should be inventoried, itemized to their respective owners and returned upon release. Also, as a means of supporting death investigations, it is important that standardize storing facilities be put in place so as to assist pathologist in conducting their autopsies based on the fact that decomposition can threaten the outcome of forensic findings during such procedures.

About the author  Dr. Rockefeller F. Cooper II in terms of education has a Doctorate Degree in medicine which was obtained at the Windsor University School of Medicine located on the Island of St. Kitts, West Indies. As an aspiring Forensic Pathologist, He also obtained a Master’s Degree in Forensic Science via the College of Pharmacy at the University of Florida in addition to a certification in forensic death investigation. Prior to these accomplishments, Dr. Cooper also received his Bachelor’s and a Master’s Degree from the Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University in the field of Biology with concentrations in pre-medicine and microbiology respectively.

******The author can be contacted via email at whitekola@hotmail.com.

By Rockefeller F. Cooper II

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