Tuesday, September 15, 2009


How could you harvest sperm from a corpse? How long does sperm remain viable after death? What kind of training would you need? How likely would it be that you could do it undetected (like, by an autopsy)? This would be a person who died of a heart attack.

First of all, eww. Sorry, dude, but that’s just…eww.

Okay, well, I have witnessed many an autopsy and I can tell you this—I apologize to the men in the audience, this is going to be graphic—those testicle things? They pull those sucker out of there like squash balls stuck at the bottom of a wet sock. So if the autopsy assistant wanted to sneak it into their pocket to drain later, it would not be too difficult. But after reading up on the male reproductive system (TMI! TMI!) it appears that sperm can be found in several small vesicles such as the epididymus and the vas deferens, glands that surround the testes and the bladder. Apparently sperm doesn’t reside in a big center pocket of the testes like the liquid in a piece of Freshen Up gum. Because of this I imagine someone would have to know their anatomy to retrieve it. A sharp knife and a turkey baster might not do the job. Of course, if someone is participating in the autopsy, they would know their anatomy.

The testes and the prostrate could be—sorry again, guys—sliced like bread at the autopsy to check for any cancerous growths. However, I believe the smaller glands would likely survive intact. After the organs are removed and dissected, they are placed in a plastic bag and put back into the body cavity. The Y incision is then sewn up so that the person is buried with everything of theirs, except for the small slivers retained for microscopic analysis.

So the pilfering autopsy pathologist or assistant would have two choices—palm the items instead of throwing them in the plastic bag with the rest of the removed organs, or go back and get it later. The first option would, obviously, be easier. If the victim died of a heart attack, it is unlikely that anyone else like a detective or forensic staff like me would be standing around and watching. So if the doctor takes a phone call or the assistant steps out to help with a funeral home pickup, the glands could easily be secreted away. The area might be monitored by camera, but even without a slight of hand it’s unlikely anyone would notice anything odd, unless they were specifically looking for it.

If this was not done at autopsy, it would be extremely difficult to accomplish (especially for an amateur) without leaving any physical damage that would then be noticed at the autopsy.

Depending on your coroner’s or medical examiner’s office, there is a chance that a full autopsy would not be done, depending on the victim’s age and whether they were under a doctor’s care. If they’re 24, they’d be autopsied. If they’re 84 and have been in the hospital three times in the past two weeks, there’s a good chance they would not be autopsied. If, as in my past experience, the agency just built a new office and lab and needs to justify the expense, they’d be autopsied unless they actually died in a hospital bed. There are many factors at work.

According to internet sources, removal should be done within 24 hours and certainly no more than 36.

Wow…just when you thought it was safe to go to the morgue…

Lisa Black spent the happiest five years of her life in a morgue. Strange, perhaps, but true. In her job as a forensic scientist she analyzed gunshot residue on hands and clothing, hairs, fibers, paint, glass, DNA, blood and many other forms of trace evidence, as well as crime scenes. Now she’s as a latent print examiner and CSI working with fingerprints and crime scenes. She has been published in Germany, the Netherlands, France, the United Kingdom, Spain and Japan.


Jen Forbus said...

That may be more info on post-mortem sperm than I ever thought I'd know in a life-time! LOL Rebecca, I'm curious as to why this question came up for you? Should I expect to see this info in a future book?

Unknown said...

Here's hoping this finally lays to rest Rebecca's obsession with dead men's sperm. She *says* it's about a plot. But I'm hoping I can get through Bouchercon 2010 without this particular question coming up at lunch again :)

Do other people accidentally gross themselves out when researching forensic pathology type issues? My husband mocks me mercilessly for it. Going along, thinking of issues somewhat abstractly, then the reality of it hits and I feel green at the gills...

Rebecca Cantrell said...

Thanks, Lisa! Love the squash balls in the wet sock metaphor. Eww,

Jen: Well, I was thinking of writing something about inheritance and divorce. Getting pregnant by a dead ex-husband for money. But now I am wondering about celebrity sperm...seems like there is a story there too.

Mysti: this one kinda grossed me out. But the tech writer in me was not going to stop asking that question until I got it answered. :)

Tana Hall said...

Poor Shane and Tim. They are going to have bad dreams tonight!

Becky, a comment for last week's post...Vermont Country Store has a big selection of German food - 4 pages worth in their catalog...potato dumplings, kartoffeln, german potato salad. It ought to set you up for some inspiration while you're suffering on Mai Tais out there in Paradise.

Great post and an exciting week with Lisa!

Shane Gericke said...

Inheritance, divorce and, er, de-burring. Hmm. Remind me to sit at the OTHER end of the bar table from Rebecca at Bouchercon ...

Back in the day, we lil' shavers had a name for what Lisa aptly describes as, "sperm doesn’t reside in a big center pocket of the testes like the liquid in a piece of Freshen Up gum."

Cum gum.

Just thought you'd want to know ...

Oh, also, the new debut thriller by Andrew Grant contains a scene of live male castration, used as a punishment by the female nasty in Andrew's book. Creepy as hell.

All right, I'm wincing too much thinking about all this. Time to go write some murder and mayhem with, you know, bullets and bombs 'n' stuff :-)

Leslie said...

Lisa, I think your answer would satisfy even the most curious of tech writers!

I was a physiology major, so not quite as squeamish as many folks, but Shane's comment about that new thriller may have been a little TMI for me! To quote the tech writer, "Eww!" (I think that is a technical term!) ;-)

Shane Gericke said...

Hi, Leslie. My wife's a tech writer, and she uses "Eww" all the time, so it must be a technical term :-)

Even I found the scene in Andrew's book really hard to take, so you might want to skip those particular pages if you decide to dive into Andrew's book.

Rebecca Cantrell said...

See, and Andrew Grant is a hoot at parties.

Thanks for the tip, Tana. I smell dinner...

I know LOTS of tech writers and we all use 'ew' so it must be technical. Not as technical as "like squash balls out of a wet sock" or "center pocket of the testicles" mind you, but we do what we can.

Kelli Stanley said...

Wow! That was fascinating stuff. Becky, I hope this cures your OCD over post-mortem sperm. :)

It's certainly cured any desire for Freshen Up gum, or even a Binaca Blast! ;)