Questions linger 50 years after Monroe’s death

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LOS ANGELES (AP) - 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.

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.

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