Editor's note: This is John W. Miner's personal account of his role in the investigation of Marilyn Monroe's death. It has not been edited except to correct the spelling of two names.
For me it began when I looked at the naked body of a 36 year old woman. She was dead She was beautiful. She was Marilyn Monroe, awaiting her autopsy.
Why was I there? Soon after I was appointed a Deputy District Attorney of Los Angeles County, California, I founded and headed the Medical-Legal Section which specialized in the investigation and prosecution of crimes presenting complex medical problems. I was designated as liaison to the County's Chief Medical Examiner-Coroner As such, I went to as many autopsies as my schedule permitted, amounting to several thousand over the years.
Forensic pathology asks the body to tell every thing it can about what caused its death: when it died; how it died; was it murdered. To get answers involves surgery, microscopic examinations and the laboratory sciences. Some answers belong to the Law which makes this branch of medicine forensic. The process begins and ends with the pathologist who is the autopsy surgeon.
For Marilyn Monroe, as for so many other celebrity deaths, this surgeon was Deputy Medical Examiner Thomas T. Noguchi MD--her final physician.
Nothing externally told why she died. Dr. Noguchi and I searched her entire body surface and orifices with magnifying glasses to look for any traces of needle injections. There was none. He then took smears from her genitals, anus, rectum and mouth which, under microscopic examination, would disclose if there had been any sexual activity.
He then began dissection. I will not describe the surgery in detail.
Since the autopsy revealed no apparent cause of death, a lethal drug dose became suspect. If this were the case it would be revealed by the laboratory analyses of the various specimens taken from the body. These specimens included organs, brain, blood, urine, smears of genital, anal, and oral areas, stomach contents.
The results of the blood analysis were conclusive. Death was caused by a massive amount of Nembutal, a barbiturate which may be prescribed for such symptoms as nervous disorders and sleeplessness. The blood sample also revealed a non-fatal level of chloral hydrate. This is the knock-out drug popularly referred to as a "Mickey Finn." It is infrequently prescribed for insomnia.
The question then is how did the lethal dose of the barbiturate get into the system. There are three main possibilities: orally, by injection and through the large intestine (colon). Finding the answer to this question was made extremely difficult because of a very strange circumstance: the disappearance of much of the specimen materials that had be submitted for examination. The stomach contents, the organ samples, the smear material somehow all vanished! I know of no other such instances,
There were, however, two examinations that could be and were made: tests of the blood and the liver. The blood examination gave us the cause of the death-- the Nembutal, The liver examination provides an indication of the means by which it was administered. The liver contained a level of 13% of Nembutal and this is very significant. It is in the liver that the drug is detoxified (broken down into harmless compounds). For the liver to have so high a barbiturate reading means that the drug was slowly absorbed over a substantial period of time before death occurred.
So now we may assemble the pieces of this puzzle to reconstruct what happened.
1. It is unlikely that Miss Monroe swallowed a large amount of Nembutal capsules without leaving any traces of the drug in her stomach or duodenum (first part of small intestine into which the stomach empties). Even though the stomach contents disappeared and were thus not available for examination, we can conclude this from the fact that, had she taken so many capsules orally, the yellow coloring of the capsules (from which come the street name "yellow jackets") there should have been yellow dye stains in the stomach or duodenum. There were no such stains.
2. Miss Monroe lived long enough to accumulate 13% Nembutal in the liver where detoxification stops at death. This means she was gradually absorbing the drug for a prolonged time before death,
3. Nembutal is not excreted by passing through the large intestine (colon).
4. She was not killed by a hypodermic injection for 2 reasons: one, there were no needle marks on her body; two, had she died from lethal injection, death would have incurred promptly, before any liver metabolism could have taken place.
5. From the above, two possible ways for the Nembutal to have killed her are eliminated. Only the third remains: absorption from the large intestine. Nembutal is intestinally absorbable. Indeed, it is packaged as a rectal suppository for physicians to use when a patient is unable to swallow. However the blood and liver readings were far too high to support a suppository as the Nembutal transmitting agent But Nembutal readily dissolves in water.