Tuesday, October 4, 2011

A Death in India

Recently I was asked to render an opinion on an alleged dog attack fatality in Bangalore, India.  The basis of the case was that a child, a two and a half year old boy named Sandeep, was found dead on the side of a road, mutilated.  His throat showed what appeared to be bite marks, his left leg was amputated, and significant tissue was missing from the leg between the knee and what would have been his hip.  A horrid sight, and a horrid way for any child to die.

The reason I was consulted was that local interests had questions about the investigation, and the probable manner of poor Sandeep’s death.  The police ruled that the death was due to dog attack, but other parties felt that there were issues that should have been investigated more closely.

The dogs in question that inhabit the streets of India are termed Native Indian dogs or INDogs, formerly called pariah dogs.  They are the native feral dog breed that inhabits India, and have done so for centuries.  They range around 25 inches at the shoulder, and weigh an average of 30 to 45 pounds-about the size of a Border Collie.

The parties involved sent me the full file; crime scene photos, the police report, the autopsy report.  And as I sat down to dig through the information and digest the terrible scene, several things struck me as inconsistent.


Since the release of my report other opinions by alleged “experts” have appeared looking as far afield as blaming “imported Pit Bulls”.  Partly in response to these other opinions I have decided to open up the book on the investigation, and my concerns, and let you all have a look at the evidence.

To begin, the story related to the police was as follows:  Sandeep and his family, migrant workers from the Bihar province of India, had traveled for work to the city of Bangalore.  Sandeep’s mother was pregnant and due, and so she was a patient at a hospital in the Bangalore suburbs.  While she was a patient Sandeep, his father and his uncle were allowed to sleep in the secured basement of the hospital, a fairly common arrangement in India where many cannot afford a hotel room while they await the treatment of a relative. 

During the night Sandeep, his father and uncle went to sleep.  When the father awoke before dawn he found Sandeep was missing.  The father told police that he began to search the area for Sandeep, but was unsuccessful.  About two hours latter, after sunrise, Sandeep’s mangled body was discovered 700 meters (for US residents, that is almost half a mile) up a city street, piled at the edge of the road where garbage is commonly abandoned.

The police arrived and photographed the scene.  The child was taken to the Medical Examiner’s Office for autopsy.  A cursory autopsy was conducted and the finding was, “Yep-the dogs did it”.

If you have followed me for any time you already know my position on making broad assumptions without a detailed investigation.  Certainly, a quick look at the crime scene and the paperwork seemed to support the idea that the local roaming INDogs dogs had attacked and killed Sandeep.  This would not be the first case of that happening.  But as I looked at the collected information things started to bother me.  The facts presented just didn’t add up.

Although there were a number of concerns, all listed in my full report, I want to concentrate here on details of the specific injuries present, and how they relate to each other and the case overall.

The first injury was the clearly visible scalping of the child.  In dog attack cases removal of part or all of the victim’s scalp is relatively common.  Partial removal of a scalp has occurred in many cases of children and adults, including the case of Mary Bernal of Florida in 2006.  Dogs that attack the head and face of a victim can easily remove chunks of torn scalp.  A clear example of dog-torn scalp injury can be found in the classic reference work Bitemark Evidence, edited by Robert B.J. Dorion (Marcel Decker Publishing, New York, 2005), pages 316, et al. 

Torn scalp-that is the key here.  Dog attacks that remove chunks of scalp show torn, ragged edges.  In the photos of Sandeep, his scalp is cleanly cut in a straight line longitudinally.  No tears visible, no tooth marks, no ragged edged flesh.  All of those indicators are familiar in dog attacks.  The flesh of the scalp is thin (as anyone who has ever busted their head in a fall knows), but when assaulted by teeth it tears unevenly, not in a clean, straight line.  That is unlike Sandeep, whose scalp wound is clean and straight, more consistent with a sharp object such as a knife-or a vehicle fender. 

But I did not make a conclusion from a single cut.  The next inconsistency was the severance of Sandeep’s left leg.  His leg was detached completely from his body.  Again, limb severance is not unknown in dog attacks, especially in children.  But the leg was detached just below the head of the femur, the large bone in the thigh.  That was visible because the flesh between the top of the thigh and approximately half way to the knee had been cleanly and evenly removed in a neat circle.  There was no visible torn tissue, no ragged bits as one would expect from dogs ripping off flesh.  And an examination of the upper exposed surface of the femur shows an angular, straight break in the bone, similar to the type of mark that a physical tool, such as a sharp metal object would have caused.  This expose bone does not show any clear marks of gnawing or a ragged break. 

This wound is difficult on two grounds.  First, I have seen limbs stripped of muscle and tissue in dog attacks.  Several of them have involved the consumption of the flesh.  Yet these have all shown ragged, non-uniform removal of meat, not the clean, circular pattern shown on Sandeep.  For a simple illustration, look at how your pet dog cleans off a large bone.  The dog takes the easy, removable bits first and then, with time, goes back and eventually picks the bone clean.  The dog does not evenly, progressively, remove each bit in a careful circle and then slowly move on to the next bit.

This is slightly consistent with an injury termed “gloving” where flesh, for instance, on a finger, is pulled off sharply by a dog (a common dog bite) that encircles the finger with his teeth and pulls away, much as you would remove a glove from your hand.  Yet gloving by a dog here would require that the dog encircle the entire top of the leg (after amputation, of course), take it almost knee-deep into the dog’s throat, then cleanly pull directly backwards stripping a clean tube of muscle and skin backwards.  With no dangling bits.  The wound at the hip is also surprisingly clean and even, not what I would expect from extended tearing in the removal of the leg by dogs.

Further, when a dog breaks a bone as large as a femur (thigh) they typically crush and crack the bone in pieces.  Sandeep's thigh bone was cleanly cut.  The location of the break is also unusual-just below the top of the bone, immediately before the joint and the ball end of the femur.  If dogs had simply ripped off the leg the most likely result would have been to tear and shred the flesh around the joint until they could pull the leg free from the socket, including the head of the femur, not to try and break the strongest part of the bone.  This tearing off of the leg would have required a substantial force, and a strong grip on the lower leg, but deep, full dentition gripping injuries are glaringly missing on the visible surfaces of the lower leg, inconsistent with the leg being ripped off by dogs.

The lack of visible blood, both on the exposed bone and the surrounding intact tissue is another concern.  Ripping a limb off results in a lot of blood.  Yet there was minimal blood visible on the skin or the bone, or under the body, an indication that the majority of the bleeding happened other than where the body came to lay.

For other concerns, please read the full report.  To summarize, the injuries, physical evidence, irregularities in the autopsy, positioning of the body on the roadside, and other circumstances bring the simple verdict of “death by dog attack” into question.  As a retired police officer I have seen both deliberate homicides and traffic crashes that could have produced all of the injuries in this case that are inconsistent with canine predation, and that could have easily combined with scavenging to give the scene presented.

My conclusion in this case is that there are a lot of unanswered questions.  None of these issues alone eliminate dogs as the cause of death-nor do they prove it.  They collectively cast doubt on the initial assumption.  I don’t know exactly how Sandeep died.  I am sure that it was violent and that Sandeep deserved a better investigation than he got.  I am certain that there was dog scavenging involved, a behavior fully consistent with observed behavior of native and other dogs in India and other places where sanitary disposal of waste, including hospital waste, is common.  And I am fully convinced that the damage in this case done by dogs does not require the mysterious importation of “Pit Bulls” into India.  I strongly suspect that there was more to this case than “Yep, the dogs did it” as was assumed, probably involving human action that could range from a deliberate attack to a hit and run traffic crash.  But Sandeep’s family will never have the closure of knowing for sure what happened to their son.