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A matter of death

Michael Baden bears witness to the secrets of the dead

By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
First published: Tuesday, December 4, 2001

A conversation with Dr. Michael Baden, the celebrated forensic pathologist, is like a drive down a winding mountain road in the fog.

There are twists and dips and digressions that are, by turns, mesmerizing and unnerving -- often leaving the listener with a fluttery feeling in the gut.

He'll share some of those stories tonight in Albany. Baden and Marion Roach will discuss their new book, "Dead Reckoning: The New Science of Catching Killers,'' as part of the New York State Writers Institute series.

Bronx-born, Brooklyn-bred and now living in midtown Manhattan, Baden segues at passing-lane speed.

It's an edge-of-your-seat ride as you hear about Baden's work on a forensic team that exhumed bodies recently and reopened the unsolved mystery of the notorious Boston Strangler murders from the early 1960s.

Did Albert DeSalvo really commit all the strangulation deaths that terrorized Boston for years? He was never convicted of the killings, although he confessed to being the Boston Strangler and was sentenced -- for another crime -- to life in prison, where he was stabbed to death by inmates in 1973.

We'll have to wait until the forensic team's results are fully divulged this month in Washington.

The media-savvy Baden knows how to leave 'em hangin'.

Eventually, Baden's yarn will coil around to the back story of an autopsy he performed last month on a victim of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center's twin towers. The middle-aged man plummeted from the 90th floor, but his body remained intact and was visually identifiable to his family after it was recovered.

"The maximum velocity of a human body in free fall is 120 mph, whether it's from the 10th floor or from an airplane at 13,000 feet,'' Baden says. "At 120 mph, internal fractures and death results, but it's not fast enough to dismember or tear the skin apart.''

He tends to speak with his hands, which frequently rake through a shock of flyaway gray hair that lends Baden a Dr. Seuss-like quality small children find endearing.

Baden co-directs the New York State Police's medicolegal investigative unit in Albany. He's also a grandfather to two and father to three grown children. He's married to attorney Linda Kenney, who also has a grown child.

Baden shuttles between a private consulting practice in New York City and Albany, staying in a local hotel during his part-time State Police work.

He travels as many as 200 days a year to perform autopsies or investigations, to offer court testimony or deliver lectures. "I get recognized a lot by airport workers,'' Baden says.

Baden also is the host of HBO's "Autopsy,'' a true-crime show.

The free-fall physics lesson morphs into a footnote on corpses and conflagration. "The fires in the World Trade Center twin towers reached temperatures of 1,700-1,800 degrees because of the jet fuel, but that only lasted a few minutes,'' Baden says.

"It takes a temperature of 3,000 degrees for 30 minutes to cremate a human body,'' he adds. "About 15 pounds of a 180-pound man is bones and, following cremation, after all the soft tissue vaporizes and bone burns, what's left is about three to five pounds of calcified cremains.''

Aside from graphic details, the technical data support Baden's position that recovery efforts and DNA analysis of the World Trade Center victims should not be rushed or scaled back due to budgetary concerns.

"The DNA is still good and it brings closure to the family. It helps survivors answer questions such as about genetic markers for family disease. And it offers the final proof that the loved one is indeed dead,'' Baden says.

There are other considerations for continuing the recovery effort at ground zero and the Fresh Kills landfill on Staten Island, where debris is being taken, including accumulating "trace evidence'' (such as fragments from any explosive or incendiary device) left from the hijackers.

An autopsy also is a strong foundation on which the inevitable lawsuits can be built.

"Was that man on the 90th floor alive and in terror for those 15 seconds he was free-falling to the ground?'' Baden asks in a dramatic tone. "It can mean $1 million a second in an award.''

Baden's been there, done that, too, testifying in a case his client won that brought the victim's family millions of dollars at the $1 million-a-second rate.

But Baden, who calls himself "a witness to the dead,'' finds spirituality on the autopsy table.

"It's a sacred place and I always treat a body with the utmost care,'' says Baden, a self-described secular Jew.

"I'm not religious, but when I'm looking inside a person's body, which is the first time a human being has done that, it's a wondrous thing,'' he says. "And it never fails to convince me that each one of us is a miracle.''


Who: Dr. Michael Baden and Marion Roach, co-authors of "Dead Reckoning,'' discuss the work of a forensic pathologist and their collaboration on the book.
When: 8 p.m. today, Dec. 4
Where: Page Hall, downtown campus, University at Albany, 135 Western Ave., Albany Tickets: Free
Info: New York State Writers Institute at 442-5620 or https://www.albany.edu/ writers-inst


Michael Baden & Marion Roach