LOS ANGELES — A half century has not dimmed skeptics’ suspicions about the death of Marilyn Monroe at age 36, but the intervening decades have seen technological leaps that could alter the investigation were it to occur today.
DNA, more sophisticated electronic record-keeping, drug databases and other advances would give investigators more information than they were able to glean after Monroe’s Aug. 5, 1962, death — 50 years ago this Sunday.
Whether any of the tools would lead to a different conclusion — that Monroe’s death from acute barbiturate poisoning was a probable suicide — remains a historical “What If?”
“The good news is we’re very advanced from 50 years ago,” said Max Houck, a forensic consultant and co-author of “The Science of Crime Scenes.” “The bad news is, we’re still trying to put it in context,” he said.
Theories of nefariousness
Monroe’s death stunned the world and quickly ignited speculation that she died from a more nefarious plot than the official cause of death. The theories stem from the 35-minute gap between when Monroe was declared dead by her physician and when police were dispatched, incomplete phone records and toxicology tests on digestive organs that were never done.
Interest has also focused on whether Monroe kept a diary filled with government secrets that was taken from her bedroom, or if she was killed to prevent her from revealing embarrassing secrets about President John F. Kennedy or his brother, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy.
An investigation by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office 20 years after her death found no evidence of a murder conspiracy, although it theorized that Monroe may have died from an accidental overdose.
The district attorney’s report employed an outside coroner’s expert who concluded “that even with the more advanced — 1982 — state-of-the-art procedures would not, in any reasonable probability, change the ultimate conclusions” reached 20 years earlier.
The Internet, digital imaging and more sophisticated testing mean that Monroe’s death if it occurred today would be subject to even more forensic scrutiny. Houck said some of the important stages of the investigation remain unchanged, including the necessity to quickly interview witnesses, control access to the crime scene and document its appearance.
“Like an archaeologist, you’re trying to reconstruct past events,” he said.
In Monroe’s case, the first police officer on the scene later said he saw her housekeeper using the washing machine in the hours after the actress’ death. The 1982 DA’s report also states roughly 15 prescription bottles were seen at the scene, but only eight are reflected in the coroner’s report.
“In cases of intense public interest, there’s a tendency to not follow standard protocol,” Houck said, which is a mistake. “You’re going to be under that much more scrutiny.”
While Monroe’s autopsy report includes an accounting of the medications taken from her bedroom, investigators are now able to do far deeper analysis of prescriptions than in Monroe’s time. A state database allows investigators to scrutinize prescriptions issued to patients and their aliases. Doctor’s records are routinely subpoenaed, as in the cases of the deaths of Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Brittany Murphy and Corey Haim.
In Monroe’s case, the DA’s report noted, one of the doctors could not be located.
Houck said investigators in some cities now employ toaster-size scanners to document crime scenes, giving them the ability to create “a 3D reconstruction that you can walk through.” In Monroe’s case, it might have been employed to show the relationship between where her body was found and the location of other important items, such as her telephone and prescriptions.
Improved fingerprint collection procedures might have also aided Monroe investigators, said Dr. Victor W. Weedn, chair of the Department of Forensic Sciences at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
DNA evidence, which police typically collect, might have only proved useful if there was a suggestion that her prescriptions had been tampered with, said Weedn, who is an expert in the use of DNA testing in death investigations.
Houck said perhaps the biggest development for investigators to mine in a case similar to Monroe’s is a star’s digital footprints: their phone calls, emails, texts, tweets and other online activities. Those all now “play a huge role,” he said.
Monroe’s phone records were incomplete, showing her outgoing but not her incoming calls, according to the 1982 DA’s report. “That’s not going to happen today,” Houck said.
Autopsy procedures much the same
Despite other advances, autopsy techniques have not changed dramatically since Monroe’s death.
Aside from its dimensions (Monroe’s autopsy report is printed on legal-size paper as opposed to current, 8 ½ by 11 inch reports), the contents are similar to those prepared after recent celebrity deaths: a description of how she was found, detailed descriptions of her body — surgical scars, organs and all — and an accounting of prescription medications found at the scene.
“We forensic pathologists do talk about how much we’re clinging to an old method,” Weedn said, noting that basic autopsy procedures have been the same for centuries.
New technologies are available, such as CT scans of bodies, but they are outside the budgets of most coroner and medical examiner’s offices, Weedn said.
The DA’s investigation generally credited medical examiner Dr. Thomas Noguchi with doing a thorough autopsy of Monroe, including examining her body with a magnifying glass to check for needle marks.
However toxicology testing, which has improved since 1962, was lacking in Monroe’s case.
Samples from Monroe’s stomach and intestines were destroyed before they were tested for drugs, Noguchi acknowledged in his 1983 memoir “Coroner,” and he quickly realized that would prompt alternate theories about her death.
“A variety of murder theories would spring up almost instantly — and persist even today,” Noguchi wrote.
Someone who knew her
Despite lingering questions, photographer Lawrence Schiller doesn’t believe foul play was involved. Schiller knew Monroe in her final days and recently released the memoir, “Marilyn &Me: A Photographer’s Memories.”
“Was there a conspiracy to kill her? No. I don’t think so,” he said in a recent interview.
He saw Monroe mixing champagne and pills and forgetting what she had taken several times, he said.
“Did she lose track of what she was taking that night? To me that’s more than likely” than any of the conspiracy theories.
Schiller said it wasn’t apparent to him at the time, when he was 23, but Monroe had reached a low point.
“She was deeply a lonely person at the end of her life,” he said.
The DA’s office agreed.
“Our inquiries and document examination uncovered no credible evidence supporting a murder theory,” the report stated.
Weedn said that while death investigators around the country are better trained than they would have been in the early 1960s, their offices are often considered low budget. Policy makers “should recognize that everything we do is for the living,” he said.