Investigating suicides and murders: co-op with the coroner’s office is never routine

At parties, Justine Newman tells people about the time she had to dig up a human skeleton half-buried in mud by the side of the road. In less public situations, she talks about the deep satisfaction of “giving voice to people who can no longer speak for themselves.”

Justine Newman - Bouvé College of Health Sciences

Justine Newman’s experience in the coroner’s office confirms her ambition to investigate death scenes. Photo credit: Bill Ibelle

While on co-op at the coroner’s office in Chester County, Pennsylvania, Newman helped investigators find the real story about the final moments of those who died mysteriously. Sometimes the answer was natural causes, other times it was suicide. But in some instances, the real story proved far more gruesome than expected, like the seemingly accidental death 10-month-old Lynial Bailey.

Lynial died in her sleep, and while her death initially appeared accidental, hair samples showed that for more than a month, her father had been sedating her with his own antipsychotic medication. When a search of his phone records showed he had researched how to conceal an intentional overdose, he was charged with first-degree murder.

Newman, HS’20, plans to go to both medical school and law school so that she can become a forensic pathologist. But first, she wanted to make sure she had the stomach for it.

“Co-op is a great way to find out if what you think you want to do, is really what you want,” she says. “I developed the co-op on my own. I was initially trying to find something in a funeral home or a morgue—anywhere I would be around dead bodies. I needed to see them and smell them to be sure that I could do this.”

Since morgues don’t appear on Northeastern’s standard list of co-ops, Newman had to create the co-op herself. She wrote letters, made phone calls, and leapt at the opportunity when the coroner’s office in her home town offered to create an internship for her.

“I was the first intern they ever had,” she says. “It changed my life. I can’t thank them enough.”


Planting the seed

Newman’s unusual interest was sparked on career day in seventh grade when a man visited her class to talk about his day job as a businessman. That didn’t exactly light the class on fire. But when he mentioned his night job, the fog lifted around all those seventh graders.

“He talked about being a coroner like it was the cat’s pajamas,” recalls Newman. “His enthusiasm was contagious. I listened and thought, ‘I want to do what that guy does.’”

Newman didn’t give it much more thought until her junior year of high school when she took a standardized test designed to tell people what career they should pursue. After answering 200 multiple-choice questions, the computer concluded that Newman was destined to become a taxidermist.

Since stuffing dead animals didn’t float her boat, she decided to go with option #2: forensic pathologist.

“I’ve been interested in science and healthcare since high school, and I love CSI and murder mysteries,” she explains. “I love fitting together all the pieces of the puzzle.”


Dealing with grief

On Accepted Students Day, Newman visited two schools. The first was Boston University, and she was all ready to sign up.

“I bought the T-shirt and everything,” she said. “But my father said I should still visit Northeastern. I fell in love with the campus—and co-op seemed like the best idea ever. The decision was a no-brainer.”

A year later, while working in coroner’s office, she confirmed that Northeastern’s experiential education model was the right choice. She traveled with investigators to death scenes, where she took photographs and interviewed grieving family members while the investigator examined the body.

“No one wants the coroner to be there,” she says. “Sometimes people were screaming at us before we even got out of the car. I provided an honest and friendly face that set the tone for the whole thing.”

During her eight months with the coroner, she worked on 4 murder investigations and numerous suicides.

“One time, we had 10 suicides in one week,” she said. “It was mostly guns. They use big guns and small guns and everything in between.”

As for the murder cases, the one that sticks with her involved a 41-year-old man named David Desper, who found himself in a situation we’ve all encountered from time to time. Desper was in traffic on the highway when two lanes merged. Neither he nor the driver in the other lane wanted to give way.

Desper’s solution?

He grabbed a gun and shot through his passenger side window, putting a bullet through the head of the other driver, an 18-year old girl on her way home from shopping for college. Desper was recently convicted and given the maximum sentence of 20-40 years in prison.


And about that skeleton…

Many times, the coroner will be called to a death scene and find no evidence of foul play. This was the case when Newman had to dig up that skeleton.

An early morning walker called the police to report what looked like human bones protruding from the mud in a ditch by the side of a rural road. The coroner was called in to investigate, and as the newest person on the team, Newman was assigned the honor of climbing onto the ditch with a trowel and digging up the skeleton.

The bones turned out to be the remains of a mentally ill woman who had been reported missing several months earlier. Forensic evidence showed that she died of natural causes while walking down the country road in the dead of winter.

“People are going to die,” said Newman. “Part of my job was making something of every death—to give voice to people who no longer have a voice of their own. The work I did was is really important, even if it’s sad. What I did gave that sadness meaning.”

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