JEFF GUTSTADT - FORENSIC PATHOLOGISTBy Susan Kujawa
Forensic Pathology – A Talk by Jeffrey Gutstadt
On Wednesday, January 11, about 25 members of Pasadena Village activated their Zoom links in order to hear Village member Jeffrey Gutstadt present a talk on his “unusual” profession. Jeff was a forensic pathologist for many years, and the Villagers were eager to hear about what forensic pathology is really like.
Jeff began with some insight into his history. He did his undergraduate work at UC Santa Cruz before moving on to five years of medical school at the University of Chicago. Early in his career, he found that he preferred working in a lab behind the scenes rather than dealing directly with patients. As a result, he spent years as a medical examiner at several coroner's offices in California, eventually ending up at the LA County office. The LA County Coroner's Office serves some 10 million people and performs over 10,000 autopsies per year.
Jeff then went on to list the four types of cases sent to the coroner's office: Homicides, suicides, accidental deaths, and deaths by natural causes. Homicides account for only 10 – 15% of the cases, but they get the most media attention.
A death usually undergoes a preliminary examination in the field (e.g., by an EMT team) before being taken to the coroner's office. The coroner's work begins with a careful external exam. In many cases, an autopsy follows. In addition, a case may require technicians to take x-rays or use fluoroscopes to locate bullets. The coroner then may send specimens to the toxicology lab as needed. Contrary to what we sometimes see on TV, a toxicology exam can easily take weeks. Finally, the coroner submits a report, which includes the cause and manner of death.
Technicians sometimes use CAT scans in lieu of autopsies, but there will always be cases that require the latter. Some cases do not require an autopsy at all; for example, a natural death with a clear cause. In other cases, someone (e.g., a family member) may request an autopsy, even when one is not required.
As expected, gun shot wounds get particularly close inspection. Investigators can determine the direction, character, and shape of a projectile from information provided during an autopsy. Inspectors can glean similar but simpler information on stab wounds, fatal cuts, and blunt force traumas.
The coroner's job is not complete after the examination. Jeff said that he has been called to testify in court hundreds of times all over LA County. Even after “retirement”, the coroner cannot rest completely; cold cases may require appearances in court years later.
Jeff's talk left a lot of time for questions. The Villagers responded with a variety of inquiries, including:
Details about autopsies and when people request autopsies
- The differences in treatment of homicides vs. suicides
- The type of gear he wore during autopsies - (in short, there is a lot of it!)
- His most difficult cases (Answer: Those involving multiple bullet wounds and/or
multiple stabbings, and/or drugs)
- His most interesting case: (Answer: The Bonny Lee Bakley murder case from 2001,
which remains officially unresolved to this day.)
On the lighter side, a Villager asked Jeff if he (or a doctor) could get away with murder. Answer: “Well, maybe so . . .”
And finally, a Villager asked Jeff if the awe he felt about the human body early in his career stayed with him. Answer: “Yes, I still marvel at the body as an amazing machine to this day.”
The Village owes Jeff a debt of gratitude for sharing his experiences. Those present found his words quite informative.
To view the recording of Jeff's talk, click here.