Ch 11: Funeral Home Autopsy

The examiner moved Vonda's body to the preparation room of Miller's Funeral Home. Miller's was a newly constructed funeral facility, state-of-the-art as far as the Black community was concerned. While it was sufficient for a cursory look to confirm the obvious, it was not a substitute for a complete pathology laboratory. In Monroe, there was no pathology lab. Funeral home preparation rooms were common autopsy sites.

       While big-city pathologists began their investigations at the scene of the crime with follow-through in the laboratory, that was not procedure followed when police contacted Dr. Thomas Gilchrist to perform the autopsy of the body.

     "Where's the body?" Gilchrist asked.

     "We sent it to Miller's Funeral Home," said the police official on the phone.

    "Everything's intact?"

    "Yes, sir. It appears to be an open and shut case. Black female, found naked, hands tied, and stabbed three times. Visible signs of a struggle and rape."

    Usually, the body would have been shipped to a laboratory in Mississippi or Arkansas, but it was unnecessary in this case. As the officer said, it was an open and closed case.

   The body lying on the steel table hardly resembled the lively young woman who was energetic and healthy just the day before. A pathologist doesn't see a person, only a body, a specimen of existence to be dissected and inspected to determine not how it lived but how it died. His job is to report on the probable cause of death and to officially document the condition of the body, not the life lived. How she lived and what she might have been was not his concern. Unlike a family physician or a pediatrician, the pathologist inspects the aftermath of life. He doesn't need a calming bedside manner that can ease the pain of grieving survivors. He is not required to tell a terminal patient they will die soon or to inform weary parents that their child won't see another birthday. To stay sane, the pathologist remains devoid of emotional attachment. He is not heartless, but he is not required to have a heart, only skill in determining the cause of a suspicious death.

    Dr. Gilchrist worked calmly and efficiently as he assembled his autopsy tools. They were standard for any autopsy and included a bone saw used to cut through bone or skull, a breadknife used to shave slices off organs for examination, a special set of scissors used to open the intestines, a heavy needle used to sew up the body after examination, a hammer with a hook used to pull the skull cap off of the head, a special set of shears to cut through the ribs, a small scalpel and a surgeon's scalpel with a large blade to make long deep cuts or to scrape away tissue. Although the examination was in a funeral home preparation room, it was sufficient for what was needed for this case.      

    A big-city police department would have been careful when it collected the body. The forensic experts would have covered the victim’s hands with plastic bags to preserve any skin fragments or fibers. One of the first steps would have been to check her fingers and save the bags that covered her hands along with other evidence. No one on the crime scene did that, so Dr. Gilchrist dictated his emotionless report into a tape recorder to be typed later on an official form.

    The raw facts, delivered in a monotone voice, are mundane, like the midnight babblings of a man awakened from a night of sleep. They were babblings that gave descriptions. Here was the body of a Black female, approximately five feet, eight inches tall, between 180-190 pounds, slightly obese. There was a large laceration on the left side of the head and an accumulation of fresh blood under the skull fracture. There was bleeding on the upper eyelid with three stab wounds: the front part of the neck, top of the left shoulder, and right anterior where the rib cage ends, a small laceration at the entrance of the vagina, binding marks on her wrists and scratches on the back of her hands. There was a polka dot scarf on her right wrist.

    As Dr. Gilchrist continued, he noticed that her fingers were extremely clean, which is unusual for a rape victim. Using a penknife from his case, he scraped a couple of her fingers but received negative results.  

  He had been told that the victim had been raped, so he looked for obvious indications of sexual activity such as lacerations in the vaginal area; however, he could not determine whether the lacerations or the suspected sexual activity were related to the death or from prior activity. Since he was told there was a rape, he ran a quick test and noted the presence of acid phosphatase, which is often interpreted by some pathologists to indicate a semen presence, but Dr. Gilchrist was careful to note that there are often exceptions.[32] He concluded that the victim had been raped from the circumstance of death reported to him by the police. Had a woman of the same description come to his office complaining of abdominal pain, with a 3/8-inch laceration in her vagina, he would not have immediately pointed to rape, but the circumstance in which the body was found pointed to rape. He would testify a year later, “I would not assume rape. If in my work as a forensic pathologist I found a body that’s brought to me by police and it was fully clothed, without the stab wounds, without the head injury, who has semen in her vagina and a laceration of the vagina, I would have a high suspicion that there was a rape or something of that nature involved, and I would proceed with the investigation with that in mind.”

  Acid phosphatase is an enzyme secreted by the prostate gland that is present in large amounts in seminal fluid. It is not unique to the prostate and can be found in other biological fluids, including vaginal secretions. It is therefore considered a possible chemical test for the presence of semen, but the presence of semen must be confirmed by other means.

    It really wasn't completely accurate to say that Vonda Harris had been raped, because there was a "probability," not a certainty. In trials, defense attorneys have destroyed pathologists who came claimed prostatic acid phosphatase is an indicator of rape because it is not a single enzyme, but an array of related isoenzymes that come from a variety of sources. Its active presence is 50 to 1,000 times greater in human semen than in any other bodily fluid. The use of acid phosphatase as the sole marker for semen is compromised because the vagina is also a source of vaginal acid phosphatase. The only way to really know is to run a microscopic inspection specifically for semen. That wasn't done in this case, but there was a minimal presence, enough for Monroe officials to conclude that Vonda Harris had been raped.

   Kidd knew that Dr. Gilchrist gave the testimony that Harrison needed. It was scientifically accurate, but his conclusions were subject to interpretation, which left the door open for Vonda Harris to have been raped. The power of a pathologist's procedure used in a trial is certainly important, but most importantly, his interpretation of the results. Often, law enforcement agencies, which usually pay the costs, tell the pathologist the circumstances of a death and add their opinion about the cause. They want the pathology report to confirm what they consider obvious. Two different pathologists could examine the same evidence and state the same facts, yet draw different conclusions. A friendly pathologist will often interpret the facts in a way that will most likely benefit the prosecution. Kidd suspected that Dr. Gilchrist's analysis was interpreted in a way that would hurt him; it was payback. In another case, Dr. Gilchrist had interpreted his findings in a way that favored Kidd's client but had not been paid. Kidd suspected Dr. Gilchrist felt cheated, and his rape determination in the Vonda Harris murder was payback.


   On February 21, 1977, the assailant read a short story in the daily paper on the front page. There was no picture of the victim, and no suspects were in custody. If his plan worked, the police would assume the woman had been raped and lump it in with other rapes that had been occurring in South Monroe, only this one resulted in murder. He knew his plan would work because he thought little of the investigative skill of the Monroe police.

The assailant folded the paper and tucked it under his arm, and strolled down the street, confident that the Monroe police would find nothing that would lead to him.

Back to blog

Leave a comment