Webinar notes: Investigating & Prosecuting Drowning Cases

Investigating & Prosecuting Drowning Cases

Presented by: Kate Loudenslagel & Hilary Weinberg


Audience Poll: Have you ever investigated or prosecuted a case involving drowning?

Yes: 33%

No: 67%


Drowning Cases are not common for some jurisdictions.

What types of cases do they see?

  • Children/Vulnerable adults in pools
  • Children/Vulnerable adults in bathtubs
  • Homicide victims placed in bathtubs, pools, lakes


These cases range from homicides all the way down to “accidents”


It’s hard to put a bright line on what is an accident.


Audience Poll: Does your jurisdiction have a law where someone could be charged criminally for a drowning?

Yes 32%

No 30%

I don’t know 38%


In Arizona, Child or Vulnerable Adult Abuse Laws fall into 2 categories:

  • Are left to likely produce death or serious physical injury
  • Left under circumstances other than those likely produce death or serious physical injury


Level of Felony

Class 2 Felony – Intentionally/knowingly

Class 3 felony – not a DCAC

Class 4 Felony – Not a DCAC

Class 5 – Recklessly

Class 6 – Felony can be pled as a 6 open or misdemeanor, possible 36-week diversion program


They talk with the law enforcement officers, child protective services, investigators – what is going on in the home: get the right services to the home.  For example: is there a constant pattern of leaving the kids alone?


Drowning Cases Come with a lot of Challenges

According to Kevin Erskine’s article in Evidence Technology Magazine (2011) even the personnel responding to a water-related death consider it an accident.

  • Culturally these types of deaths were perceived as accidents – similar to
  • Many agencies do not have the training to adequately handle these types of investigations (like of dive team/equipment)
  • Chaotic scenes – it’s not as easy to contain a water scene (ie: a lake) – can result in loss of evidence and witnesses.



Bathtub Cases

Key tips for investigations:

  • Note level of water in the tub.
  • Make sure it’s documented and observations made with what kind of stopper is used to keep the water in.
  • If water is drained, where is the highest point tub is wet?
  • How long is does it take to fill the tub to that point?
  • The temperature of the water can matter.
  • Is there anything in the tub that should not be there/things missing?
  • Just like with any child abuse case – get the best timeline possible.


Timelines become incredibly important in these cases and may require experiments, particularly with premeditation.


Getting Past the Concept of “Accident”

  • Juries don’t like to think that a parent could be responsible for a child’s death
  • Parent/caretaker often comes across as sympathetic
  • Varying degrees of culpability
    • Susan Smith case in South Carolina
    • Andrea Yates case in Houston (had suffered from mental illnesses for years)
    • Considerations: Presence of others, mislabeled depths


[Presenters share a surveillance video of a drowning at a public “lagoon-like” pool with numerous people in and around the pool area as a “case study” for understanding drowning cases.] A child abuse-related charge was filed, case was pled out.


Audience Poll:

Having watched the video, should someone be charged criminally for this drowning?


Select one or more of the following:

No, this was just an accident  12%

Yes, the community pool owners operators 12%

Yes, the child’s caregiver 71%

I don’t know 17%


Difficulties for Pathologists

  • These cases are one of the most challenging for pathologists
  • Lungs may not reflect drowning
  • Postmortem wandering = the body sinks until refloat which can cause the body to be injured on the bottom of the waterway.
  • Maggots/fish feeding
  • Decomposition – though bodies submerged for long periods such as weeks or months will develop a waxy film which slows decomposition and preserves internal organs.


What if the body has trauma on it not related to drowning?

  • Was the victim injured and placed in water?
  • Was the victim likely deceased before being placed in the water?


Key issue is causation – was the victim left in a position where a drowning was likely to occur? (Homocide)

Additional Resources
7 months ago
Investigating & Prosecuting Drowning Cases
This course discusses the challenges faced in the investigation and prosecution of drowning […]
8 months ago
Investigating and Prosecuting Drowning Deaths: an Interview with Hilary Weinberg and Kate Loudenslagel
  Join webinar hosts Hilary Weinberg and Kate Loudenslagel of the Maricopa Coun […]
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