Murder or Suicide by the Forensics
Each year in America millions of people die by their own hands. Millions more die at the hands of others. Investigators do not want to make the mistake of convicting someone for murder if the victim actually committed suicide. At the same time they do not want to assume a death was the result of suicide when it was in fact a homicide. Investigators have to study bodies very carefully and research the victim’s behaviors leading up to the death in order to make the proper determination. It is not always a guarantee that a mistake will not be made, but most crime investigators learn the fine differences between self inflicted deaths and those caused by others - Murder or Suicide by the Forensics introduction. This involves a combination of physical and social sciences.
One very common method of death that can be either suicide or homicide is gunshot wounds especially gunshot wounds to the head or chest. The most common types of gunshot suicides are committed using handguns, because it is easier for a person to hold a handgun to their head than a shotgun or rifle and fire it to cause a fatal wound. This tends to be a popular method of suicide because it is quick. It takes only fractions of a second to inflict the wound and death occurs within minutes. It is effective, because shots to the head are usually fatal the first time and have a low rate of failed attempts. In most cases this method of suicide is relatively painless, because death or at least unconsciousness occurs almost instantly. The drawback with this method is that the person does not have time to change their mind and call an ambulance before death occurs. Once the trigger is pulled death is usually imminent.
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Statistically, more men use this method to commit suicide than women partly because more men have a gun readily available and find it more convenient. More women choose overdose of medication, because it is easier, less messy and does not horribly disfigure the body or face. When these statistics are compared to murder by hand guns, women rarely commit murder, but when they do it is most often with a handgun. The reason for this is that guns do not require much physical strength or close contact to kill the victim. These and other factors are important to know when attempting to distinguish between murder and suicide, because many people who commit murders attempt to cover the murder by attempting to make it look like a suicide. For this reason, the more factual distinguishing information available, the easier it is to determine who pulled the trigger of the gun. By finding out as much information as possible about the victim of the crime and the evidence surrounding the crime the crime investigators will have increased advantage in being able to make this determination. Part of this would go back to the history to determine who would have the most likely motive for wanting the person dead. Although it is not always easy to determine the exact motive, but the more forensic information and personal information about the victim makes an accurate assessment more likely.
The best place to start is at the scene. The first step is to render aid or summon aid if the person is still living. If it is uncertain whether the person is deceased, a determination needs to be made. This is determined by the cessation of heartbeat, respirations, brain function and the failure of the eye pupils to react to light (Cameron, nd). If it is likely that the person has just died, then it is possible that CPR could still save the person’s life. If the person is determined to be deceased and beyond the possibility of being revived, an investigation into the exact cause of death must begin immediately. The body and the surrounding area need to be examined to determine a number of factors.
The scene surrounding area needs to be examined for either evidence of a struggle or some other kind of disturbance and any possible evidence that can lead to a likely suspect in the event that the death turns out to be the result of a homicide. In some cases of suicide the person leaves a dying declaration or suicide note. These often tell the reason for the choice to take one’s own life and leave personal messages to the person’s loved ones. If this is present at the scene and the handwriting can be confirmed as that of the victim, then the cause of death is very likely to be suicide. If this is not present, or there is a question about the real source of the declaration, then a further investigation needs to be launched.
The preliminary investigation involves collecting evidence and information from the scene that might be needed to determine possible suspects if the death is determined to be a homicide. First the victim needs to be identified, the cause of death needs to be determined, the time of death needs to be determined and a list of possible suspects needs to be developed if it becomes a homicide investigation (Cameron, nd).
Identifying the victim is usually the simplest part of the investigation. If the victim is found in his home surrounded by personal effects of the victim that is who the victim is likely to be. If the victim has identification with them, their family can be contacted to identify them. In some cases of gunshot to the head, the head and face are damaged to the extent that DNA is required to get an accurate identification.
In order to determine an accurate time of death to develop a timeline for the suicide or homicide an investigator must know the various stages of death. At the moment of death, the heart stops, the skin turns a grey color and tightens, muscles relax, the bowels and bladder empty and the body temperature begins to drop (Cameron, n.d.). After approximately thirty minutes, the skin turns a darker purple color, the toenails and fingernails fade to a pale color, and the blood pools in the part of the body next to the surface the body is on (this is called livididty) (Cameron, n.d.). At this stage the hands and feet begin to turn blue and the eyeballs sink farther back into the head. Rigor Mortis (The stiffening of the body) begins to set in at approximately four hours post mortem and the discoloration and blood pooling continue (Cameron, n.d.). After twelve hours, the body is in full rigor mortis, meaning the entire body has stiffened (Cameron, n.d.). After twenty four hours the body temperature lowers to the surrounding temperature, the head and neck turn a blue-green color, this color begins to spread throughout the rest of the body, a foul odor is present, the rigor mortis reverses, the body becomes limp and the face becomes difficult to recognize (Cameron, n.d.). After approximately three days depending on the environment and the temperature, the body gases cause large blisters to form in the skin, the body bloats and swells, and fluids begin leaking from the body’s orifices (Cameron, n.d.). At around three weeks post mortem, the skin and hair become very lose and can easily be removed by pulling on them, The internal gasses cause the skin to crack and break. This decomposition process continues until bones are all that is left. The process often takes approximately one month in warm climates and in cooler climates it takes closer to two months. The detectives use this information to determine the time frame in which the victim died. They look at the stage of rigor mortis, the lividity, body temperature, and the stage of decomposition in order to determine the approximate time of death.
In addition to helping determine the time of death, the lividity of the body can help investigators know if the body has been moved post mortem. This is shown by a lividity that does not match the body position. Such as lividity on the back, when the body is lying on the stomach would indicate that the body has been turned over post mortem. Obviously the post mortem moving of the body would strongly suggest the death was the result of homicide.
When the body is found and death is determined to be the result of a gunshot wound to the head. The weapon needs to be recovered. In order for the death to be the result of a suicide, the gun needs to be within a short distance from the body. If the gun is in the victim’s hand it is likely that the gun will be gripped very tightly. If it is grasped loosely, it is possible that it was placed in the hand after the shooting. If the weapon is more than a few feet from the body or if it is located at an angle where it would be unlikely to fall such as under the opposite side of the body than the person would use to shoot a determination of suicide would be unlikely (Zucchino, 1993).
The next thing to be studied is the wound itself. First it needs to be determined what kind of gun was used. Most suicides by gun shot are committed with a hand gun. A hand gun shot can be determined from that of a shotgun by the entry and exit wounds. A shot gun leaves a much larger exit wound than a handgun does. With most guns the entry wound is larger than the exit wound. This is not always the case as sometimes the trajectory of the bullet changes as it ricochets off bone and does not exit the body at all (Forensics, n.d.). The angle of the bullet is another important factor. In most cases of suicide, the entry wound is either at the temple, in the mouth, or the chest and is rarely found in the abdomen or back of the head (Karger, 2002). The angle of the bullet usually goes upwards and forward to back of the head in the chest it is usually from right to left (Karger, 2002). If the person is right handed the entry wound is most often found in the right temple and left handed people it is most commonly in the left temple. If the entry wound is found in the back of the head, the temple aimed at a downward angle, the mouth aimed at a downward angle, or anywhere besides the head or chest, the death is likely to be a homicide (Karger, 2002). In a suicide there is rarely more than one shot, because the person is either dead or too incapacitated to be able to shoot the gun a second time (Acker, 2003). An additional observation is that a suicidal person rarely shoots through clothing. Even those who shoot themselves in the chest usually move the clothing out of the way before shooting the gun (Acker, 2003).
The distance the gun was from the head is another important factor to consider when attempting to determine if death was caused by suicide or homicide. This can be determined by looking at the wound. Contact wounds are wounds resulting from a gun that is held directly against the skin, when the gun was fired. This type of injury almost always leaves black powder residue from the gun’s firing on the skin and often bruising on the skin. (Suicide photos, n.d.). Sometimes the outline of the gun muzzle shows on the skin. Contact wounds can be broken down into sub-categories. Hard contact means that the barrel of the gun is pressed hard against the skin; in this case the gasses released from the gun essentially bake the soot onto the skin (Pounder, 1993). Loose contact means the contact with the skin is light, but the contact is complete. This leaves soot around the wound that can be wiped off (Pounder, 1993). Angled contact means that the barrel of the gun is in contact with the skin at an angle only part of the muzzle is touching the skin. The blackened soot area in this case is wider on the side the muzzle does not touch and can be wiped off (Pounder, 1993). Incomplete contact occurs when the muzzle touches a contoured portion of skin and thus only touches part of the skin. In this case the blackened area varies in amounts around the wound and can be wiped off (Pounder, 1993).
The next distance category is known as close range. This can be broken down into the sub-categories of near or intermediate. This covers the distance from less than an inch from the skin to a distance of approximately three feet or arms length from the body (Pounder, 1993). In these types of wounds there is usually a spattering pattern on the skin around the entry wound and sometimes some powder residue. Distant range is any distance over three feet. The wound is defined only by the entry of the bullet with no other markings around it (Pounder, 1993). Suicidal gunshot wounds must be either contact range or close range. Anything beyond arm’s length or three feet would be impossible for a person to inflict upon oneself.
The amount of blood at the scene, the location of the blood and the spatter pattern of the blood is also very helpful in determining the actual cause of death. Blood spatter is the blood stains in the surrounding area as the result of the injury. These are important when analyzing the scene in order to determine the weapon used to commit the crime, the direction from which the person was struck (angle), the position of the victim and if applicable the suspect, locations of movement at time of the injury, the number of shots, the sequence of the events and testimony of possible witnesses (MindRelief, 2007). Projected blood spatter is the type that is important to pay attention to in the case of gunshot wounds, because these types of spatter are the result of some kind of force acting on the blood and projecting it towards a surface. Low velocity spatter This results in large areas of stain and usually includes some kind of arterial bleeds, which results in bursts of blood loss with each heart beat. It results in a cascading pattern (MindRelief, 2007).
Medium velocity spatter usually comes from impact with blunt objects. This type of spatter usually produces droplets that are smaller than those of low-velocity spatter patterns ( MindRelief, 2007). High velocity spatter is the type of spatter usually caused by gunshot wounds. It produces a spatter that looks mostly like a spray pattern (MindRelief, 2007). These patterns can be created with either the exit or entrance wound. Ones caused by the entrance wound are called blowback or backspatter stains. This is determined to have happened when the spatter has occurred in the opposite direction of the path of the bullet (MindRelief, 2007). By measuring and comparing the placement of the spatter with the placement of the body, the investigators can develop a good idea as to the angle of the bullet trajectory and the distance of the gun from the victim. This can also be helpful in determining if another person was holding the gun based on angles body positioning and possible objects that would interfere with the blood spatter and leave blank places in the spatter. If there are blanks in the spatter it is likely that someone was standing between the spatter and the object the spatter landed on which is a strong indicator that the person died as the result of a homicide. If the spatter indicates an angle contradictory to those of likely suicide, the likelihood of the death being the result of a homicide also increases.
Gunshot residue is a very important deciding factor in determining if a death is the result of a suicide or homicide. Gunshot residue is the gun powder that the gun releases into the air when the gun is fired. Anyone close to the gun at the time it is fired is likely to have a great deal of gunshot residue on them. The person who fires the gun will without a doubt have gunshot residue on their hands. Some studies indicate that it is not possible to tell that an injury was caused by suicide merely by the presence of gunshot residue on the victim’s hands because some residue would be present on the victim in the event of a contact, close or point blank (near contact) gunshot homicide )Wright, 2006). In most cases however, depending on the residue on the hand, the amount of residue on the hand and the placement of the residue on the hand would tend to indicate that a death was the result of a suicide. The absence of gunshot residue on the victim’s hand would almost definitely indicate a homicide.
There are different aspects to the injury the bullet is not the only thing that causes injury to the person. The force that causes the bullet to leave the barrel of the gun is called gun powder, which is an explosive that creates air distribution and explosive gasses to be released. When a weapon is fired at close range, while the bullet enters the body the skin and head cavity are also stretched out of shape creating a temporary wound cavity that is larger than what the wound will be when it has settled (Evans, 2004). At in some cases it is believed that the skin is stretched and distorted even before the bullet has entered the head and the concussive effect helps to make the wound bigger than the bullet alone would. These effects are more pronounced in close range shots in which the explosive gasses are directly released into the wound or near the wound. Longer range shots do not have these effects.
Body positioning is helpful in indicating if the wound was self inflicted. In the event of a suicide, the person has often planned out the course of events and has positioned his or her body accordingly. If the person is sitting in a chair or on a bed in a somewhat comfortable position, it would often indicate suicide. If there are family pictures or items the victim would consider important around or near the victim this indicates that the victim was considering important loved ones before making the final decision to take ones own life. If however the body is oddly contortioned, facing the door, partially dressed or in a compromising position suicide is unlikely. The person who commits suicide would be sure to position and dress themselves the way they would want someone to find them.
In addition to the body, the surroundings need to be closely scrutinized for blood or DNA evidence that does not belong to the victim and fingerprints on the weapon other than those belonging to the victim. The weapon needs to be analyzed to determine who the weapon belongs to, how many times it was fired, if it had been involved in any other crimes, and if the bullet that killed the victim in fact came from the weapon found on the scene. Any fibers, hairs, fingerprints, body fluids or other items that do not fit the scene need to be gathered and analyzed.
Once the scene has been extensively evaluated, the background of the victim, the events leading up to the person’s death and the personality of the victim need to be studied and analyzed in order to determine the likelihood of the person committing suicide. Very few people who kill themselves simply wake up one morning and decide to kill themselves. They usually spend quite some time planning the suicide before they actually carry it out and often show signs as well as possible attempts prior to the actual event.
The first thing the investigators need to know is the basic history of the victim. They need to know if there was a history of any kind of mental illness or a family history of people who committed suicide, had mental illness, or suffered from depression. In order to find this information, the investigators need to interview family members, doctors and look at medical records. People who are suicidal often have a history of depression or anxiety. Some of them have gone as far as attempted suicides. If the person’s death followed a history of institutionalizations due to depression or suicidal ideation, the death would be less likely to warrant an extensive homicide investigation to determine that the person had a desire to die.
Events leading up to the death are important to investigate to determine if there had been any warning signs that a suicide might happen. Some of the common warning signs include isolation or retreating from friends or activities that the person previously enjoyed. The suicidal person sometimes had major personality changes directly prior to the suicide. They often appear more irritable, distracted, or anger easily (Suicide, n.d). A serious sign of impending suicide occurs when a person begins to put affairs in order such as making a will or telling people where to find important papers or family heirlooms. They may seem to worry more and often have a decreased ability to feel or show pleasure. Sometimes they seem to be more obsessed with guns, medication or death. Suicidal people will be likely to give away many of their personal items in an attempt to be sure the people they want to have the items gets them. They sometimes start taking more medications or consume more alcohol. The person may have increased or excessively decreased energy. They might write goodbye letters to people they care about or to explain their actions. The person is very likely to show a loss of self esteem and no longer be able to sleep well. They are often more aggressive or appear very sad and begin to neglect their personal appearance or their hygiene (Suicide, n.d.).
The person who is suicidal is very likely to begin talking about death or wishing they could die. The problem is that many friends and family just assume the person is going through a phase and ignore the signs of distress until it is too late and the person has actually carried out the suicide. Any time a person has any of the warning signs they need to be referred to counseling. All indicators of suicidal ideations should be taken very seriously in order for families to avoid an investigation into a loved ones death. If a person suddenly increases or purchases a life insurance policy on themselves shortly before death that does not exclude death by suicide, the death may have been caused by suicide. If it is discovered that the victim has had a life insurance policy purchased for them by someone else. If the suicidal person talks of a clearly thought out and realistic plan for suicide, immediate action including calling emergency services is needed. A well-thought out plan includes a reason for the suicide, a method of suicide and access to the method. This includes such things as saying they are going to take a knife and slit their wrists. In these events all potential weapons need to be removed from the person and services need to be reached immediately. School and medical officials have learned that each person who talks of suicide need to be taken seriously, but most people use this kind of talk to close friends or family members, who are not trained to know the warning signs of suicide.
If during a homicide investigation, the victim has no history of suicidal ideation or family history of suicide, then suicide becomes a less likely cause of death. It needs to be determined if the person had any kind of tragic or upsetting event would be likely to have occurred recently that could have led to the reason for a person to want to die. Sometimes a recent death of a loved one, loss of a job or a painful break-up can lead to a sudden desire to end one’s life. If the person has found out they are facing a medical crisis, they can sometimes decide to take their own life in order to avoid a long and painful death at a later time. For this reason it is important to know the medical history of the person.
While studying the recent history of the person’s behaviors it is also important to know if they had been harassed by other people in recent history or if there was anyone who had a reason to want the person dead. If something had happened recently to cause some kind of danger to the person’s life then homicide might be more likely. If a person had been threatened by someone or had an enemy, these people would have to be
investigated. In the event that the person had been the victim of a stalker, this person would need to be investigated. In relationships in which the person has been the victim of domestic violence the death could be the result of a domestic dispute ending with the person’s death. All possibilities need to investigated and the most likely scenario determined.
Crimes of passion (ones that are not planned out) and in some cases planned homicides sometimes result in the person attempting to cover up the crime by making it appear to be a suicide. In these cases, the person will go to great links in order to cover up the crime by making it appear to be a suicide. This is when the forensic evidence becomes very important. The criminal will probably remember to clean up all fingerprints and potential DNA evidence, but there will be some aspect of the crime they will not be able to account for. In these cases the angle of the bullet, time of death and timeline of the crime become very important.
Investigators are trained to know the difference between a suicide and a homicide. They spend a great deal of time in training to study the differences between what each scene would look like. A murder can rarely cover a scene well enough to get rid of all evidence of murder. When a person’s body is found with a gun in his hand and no blood on the long sleeve of his shirt, the death is very likely to be the result of a homicide. Most people who have killed someone would not think to place blood on the sleeve of the dead person in order to make the suicide appear authentic. If a death is the result of
suicide the person’s family will be devastated because they were unable to save the person, but if the death was the result of a homicide and the killer goes free because they successfully made it look like a suicide, the result would be even worse.
No crime scene looks exactly like another one, but the basic signs of suicide and homicide are the same. If the scene is very carefully investigated and the investigators take great care to study the minute details they will not allow any killer to pass off a murder scene as a suicide. This information is very important for people to know in order to solve crimes and to determine if a suicide is actually a suicide. Although studying pictures and statistics of people with only portions of their heads still intact are very stressful to investigators they are necessary in order to help keep potential killers and potential suicides from ending the same way as the people in the pictures. It is also important for investigators to know in order for them to not damage the crime scene or evidence that could help catch a killer, because they think a crime scene is a suicide.
Even in cases in which the death looks very clearly to be a suicide, the history of the person needs to be investigated and the crime scene needs to be thoroughly gone over for any evidence indicating that the death could have been something else. Every victim of a crime deserves justice, which can only be served if the cause of death is determined.
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