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Your weekend reading, January 14-15, 2012 – Janis Joplin Autopsy

January 14, 2012

1. History, 2. Law, 9. Weekends

Your weekend reading, January 14-15, 2012 – Janis Joplin Autopsy

All due respect to Janis, but let’s play doctor.

One thing an attorney must do to be successful in litigation is to learn the details of other trades.  It’s not enough to know a breach of contract when you see it – the clear violations get settled.  More often, there are technical disagreements that require us to know our client’s business.  An attorney representing a brewery was in front of SCOTUS, for example, and was asked “What’s the difference between beer and ale?”  It was curiosity by the Justice, but a question from the bench nonetheless.  Further, an attorney cannot competently cross an adverse expert without understanding the details.  We can’t look at our own expert (if our client even sprung for one) and ask, “What does that mean?”  And just because our client tells me that he’s right and the other side is wrong does not make it so – we need to understand the details.

This requirement to dive deeply into other trades and professions does not translate to attorneys being repositories of vast amounts of information.  Rather, it is how an attorney’s brain is wired.  We can research.  Information is like a Rubik’s Cube.  Gather enough on a certain topic, jostle it around for a bit, and a certain wholeness emerges.  When the case ends the Cranial Toilet is flushed, and the next topic is presented for understanding.  I headed a research grant in undergrad using System Dynamics – it went a long way in shaping the mush between my ears into something kinda sorta productive in short spurts.

So back to Janis … her early death was probably inevitable, but the specific event from a heroin overdose on October 4, 1970, was a confluence of events:

Janis’s dealer was actually a careful sort. … He always used a chemist to measure his drug’s purity. But on that fateful weekend, the chemist was out of town. Rather than miss out on another weekend’s profits, the dealer would cut his own batch. Little did he know he would end up with a deadly concoction that was between 50 and 80% pure, making it too strong for most users and catching many of them off guard. Reportedly, seven other users died from the strong heroin sold that weekend.

Sad, eh?  Janis purposefully skin-popped her heroin.  That’s usually a mistake – most addicts want it spiked directly into a vein.  By skin-popping, the drug enters the bloodstream over 90 minutes or so.  She walked to the hotel counter then back to her room and got undressed.  That’s when the heroin hit her.  Her face smacked the nightstand as she dropped, head wound up between that and the bed – clean up on Aisle 7.  Jimi Hendrix had died just two weeks before.

Let’s dive into her autopsy.  Here’s the summary:


I. Pulmonary edema and congestion.

II. Visceral congestion.

III. Needle marks, arms, bilateral.

IV. Fatty metamorphosis of liver.


The unembalmed body is that of a Caucasian female, appearing the stated age of 27. A tattoo of a bracelet is present around the left wrist. A small tattoo of a flower is present just behind the lateral malleolus on the right heel. There is also a small heart tattooed over, and medial to, the left breast. Numerous needle marks are present in the arms bilaterally, both in the antecubital fossa and on the left lateral anterior margin of the left arm. On sectioning, there appears to be at least two fresh hemorrhagic areas on the lateral margin of the left arm. The antecubital fossa shows, what appears to be, old needle marks and some are of relatively recent origin. An old surgical scar is present in the right lower quadrant of the abdomen. There is a slight amount of bloody material present in the mouth and on further examination, some disruption of the mucosa is noted. No evidence of major trauma or of violence is present. The hair is of moderate length and shows a varying shade of, from blond to brunette. The eyes are blue and show moderate dilatation of the pupils. The external genitalia is female. There is some irregular dependent livor with the pressure changes chiefly on the left side, suggesting body rest on the left side.

Pulmonary edema and congestion & Visceral congestion.  These add up to trouble.  Both are listed under the Framingham Definition of Heart Failure – Major Criteria.

Fatty metamorphosis of liver.  At age 27 – just a girl in her prime – it’s not good that she showed signs of a deteriorating liver:

The most common cause of a fatty liver in the United States is alcohol abuse, according to the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Alcohol is processed by the liver and, over time, can inhibit normal functioning of the liver and cause fat to build up in cells of the liver. This form of fatty liver is called alcoholic steatosis. Over time, the build up of fat causes liver damage, and can eventually lead to alcoholic cirrhosis of the liver, if not treated. Cirrhosis is when the liver is so damaged that scar tissue begins to replace normal liver tissue.

Reading the autopsy, we learn that Janis had heroin, weed, and a few pills marked “Lilly 172″ in her room.  The girl was living hard.  I’d have to find an old PDR to see what Lilly 172’s were – can’t seem to find it online.  There’s one on eBay from 1970.  She was known to take Valium, but that was a Hoffman-LaRoche drug.

But now the bottom line … Her BAC was 0.11%, so she was drunk at the time of her death, but, more importantly, her blood showed a morphine level of 0.02 mg%.   (Heroin “is an opioid analgesic synthesized from morphine”)  The lethal level of morphine in the blood is 0.005 to 0.400 mg%

Ta Da!  Heart failure due to heroin overdose!

Remember last weekend’s reading on John Lennon?  His 30th birthday was October 9, 1970.  Here’s a recording that Janis mailed to John before she died and that he received after her death:

Janis to JOL

And here’s a great video of her:

The video cannot be shown at the moment. Please try again later.


“Whew, that girl can sing,” I breathe as I light a cigarette.  “Was it good for you, too?”

Well, hey, why not – one last song from my vault.  I never saw any video of Janis with a guitar.  This studio version of Me & Bobby McGee is her alone both singing and playing the guitar.  There’s studio talk up front that you may need to crank your volume a little to catch.

Janis, studio solo, Me & Bobby McGee

OK, now we’re done.  Enjoy your weekend.

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About Clyde

Clyde is the lead attorney in the firm. Licensed to practice in 1993, he's also taught Constitutional and Criminal Law for several years at a private university, primarily at the Master's level.

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