Morgue: A Life in Death by Dr. Vincent Di Maio and Ron Franscell
Morgue: A Life in Death is an enlightening read; do not be put off by the title. Although there are graphic descriptions of wounds and modes of death, this is not a blood and gore shock-fest by any means. This compilation provides forensic details on a number of historical cases but also allows room for biographical information about Di Maio. He claims descent from doctors stretching back into the 17th Century — only one male in his line was not a doctor. His father, a first generation Italian American, was Chief Medical Examiner for New York City for the last four years of his 40-year career. His mother became an attorney because going to law school afforded her an opportunity for an education.
A section titled “The ‘Why’ Incision” provides an extensive family background for Di Maio and confirms the author’s experience and authority. His father worked on a variety of cases including the Son of Sam, mob hits, the alleged remains of Jimmy Hoffa, Malcolm X, and airplane crashes that caused the deaths of more than 500 people. Di Maio and his three sisters, all of whom became doctors, tagged along into the morgue as children. “My earliest memory is of death,” Di Maio writes, “I have kept death at a respectful distance.”
New York City instituted the first medical examiner system in 1918. Until then the determination of death was usually based on the British system of the coroner. Even today, we still have two systems nationally. Medical examiners must be physicians certified in the field; however, coroners, who prevail in about 49% of the United States, are typically elected and may not necessarily be a physician. Di Maio characterizes the coroner system, rightfully so, as producing “poor, inconsistent work.” Efforts have been made to replace coroners, but “what was good for the tenth century is apparently still good for the twenty-first.”
Ten chapters unfold in a variety of scenarios. Among these are “The Curious Death of Vincent Van Gogh,” “Digging Up Lee Harvey Oswald,” and the case of Phil Spector, “Death, Justice, and Celebrity.” Perhaps the most polarizing case is the first one presented, “A Death in Black and White,” about the February 2012 shooting of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida.
Di Maio and Franscell present the case from both sides. Martin “often hand-fed his quadriplegic uncle, baked cookies with his young cousin….” A typical teenager in many ways, he still “flirted with the thug life, smoking pot, and playing a badass on Facebook.” Zimmerman had suggested and organized a community watch for his neighborhood. His call to 911 is detailed; he could have waited for the police to arrive. A confrontation ensued with Zimmerman shooting Martin at “intermediate range” according to Dr. Shiping Rao who performed the autopsy. These key words began to drive the media frenzy which was exacerbated when the family provided a cherubic picture of Martin that did not reflect his appearance that night. Once Zimmerman was charged, the trial began to play out in the press without understanding or ignoring its facts.
During the trial (16 months after the shooting), Di Maio was brought in by the defense. “This was a complicated case only in cultural terms. Forensically, it wasn’t complicated at all. It was tragically simple.” Zimmerman was found not guilty largely because Di Maio was able to prove correct Zimmerman’s assertion that Martin was on top of him when he shot. Martin’s “death was not a miscarriage of justice, but rather a painfully perfect example of justice itself. The process of seeking, finding, and reporting facts was successful…The real problem wasn’t injustice, but an unfortunate series of ordinary human faults that led to a fatal overreaction by both men…They profiled each other.”
The key sentence in this account applies in nearly every case. “In the end, I can’t see into their hearts.” The medical examiner must search for facts and report only those facts – a pursuit of “Just the facts, Ma’am,” as Sergeant Friday is reputed to have said on the old television series “Dragnet.”
Originally published in 2016 and now available in trade paperback, Morgue is a working biography, a slice of a life among the dead as seen by Dr. Vincent Di Maio, former Chief Medical Examiner in San Antonio, Texas. Ron Franscell, who has been praised as one of the “most provocative new voices in narrative nonfiction,” provides the narrative flow. Together they create a compelling read about cases known and unknown to the general public. If you like the CSI television series, but recognize the theatricality of those shows, you will appreciate this accurate and straightforward depiction of how medical examiners really approach death.