Suspicious deaths – stabbed back of neck suicide; a woodchipper death; handgun found in a kitchen appliance. These have any investigator questioning what happened. Add false statements by people families trust – law enforcement, prosecutors, funeral homes, TV & movies – and you have suspicious families, and also criminal and civil litigation, even denied insurance benefits.
What is the best course of action when a client, family or other representative has any concerns in a death – from civil and criminal litigation, to family? First – do not agree or disagree, or provide any affirmative statements (i.e. this is definitely murder, homicide, suicide, accident, etc.). We too often hear, or read, in our consultations these statements. Then we see the details of why – no one shoots themselves in the heart, you can’t kill yourself in this manner, the funeral home said it can’t be, etc. We have seen law enforcement present evidence resulting in the change of a death certificate and resulting in criminal charges – and the death was suicide. We have seen a medical examiner’s office present evidence to law enforcement and charges dropped or case theories changed. We have seen the opposite of these. We have also seen the arguments the science of fingerprints, hair, blood spatter, etc. are not science because there have been errors – and which have resulted in wrongful convictions (and, not often publicized, no conviction where the evidence otherwise reveals beyond a reasonable doubt). We have seen circumstantial evidence used or ignored to persuade the interpretation of scientific evidence. In short, we have seen the verbal manipulation of facts.
Evidence – direct and circumstantial, scientific and otherwise – is based on theory, experimentation, and interpretation. Any misguided step in the process may result in error. An uninformed opinion, misapplied evidence, or relying on entertainment (CSI Effect) is concerning. We are contacted by other investigators, attorneys, and families. Investigators and attorneys have strategies to develop for their cases, usually litigation, which may be dependent on the findings in a death or serious bodily injury. However, if an investigator or attorney – or any other entity, including a funeral home, retired law enforcement or prosecutor, insurance adjuster, etc. tells the family what they want to hear or don’t want to hear – the statement is permanent in their minds and beliefs. This is why it is best to seek an expert and evidence based opinion. This may then include specific steps to take if the death is founded to be questioned. Every unexpected death may be suspicious – it is to be expected. At one meeting of another investigator we were asked how a city could have more suicides than homicides – the investigator was convinced of shenanigans at the medical examiner’s office and/or law enforcement investigations. No data or other reasons for the suspicion – it “just doesn’t feel right” and they were determined to prove their “theory”. Unfortunately, the investigator was often contacted by family members to investigator their loved one’s death – usually a suicide – and prove it was a homicide. These are disservices to the family, attorneys, etc. It may also result in a factual homicide being misinvestigated. Perhaps a wrongful conviction.
There are many cases of suspicious deaths which present potential conflicts in evidence. Recently, the Journal of Forensic Identification (International Association for Identification) presented a death by hanging, resulting in decapitation. After careful review of the evidence, including studies in possible methods of homicide, it was a suicide. There have been cases of suicide with the handgun later found in a kitchen appliance, or false statements by witnesses and family members to hide embarrassment. One well known case of a law enforcement officer, later found to have been embezzling money from a non-profit, planned the near perfect suicide as a homicide (and many more such staged events can be found). Colleagues have presented cases of one injury and two bullets in the wound tract, with one abutting the other end-to-end; or another of one bullet causing two distinct injuries. The first rule of thumb – there is no surprise in what a person will do to themselves or others. The other – know the science of the evidence presented.
Most deaths, significantly most, are natural – age, medical and health, etc. Next is accident – motor vehicle, workplace, an unintentional act, etc. Then there are homicides and suicides – and these are the most contested of deaths (and some have been found to be accident, and some accident have been found to be homicide or suicide). Those are the coroner or medical examiner determinations – or manners – of death. These are not the same as the legal – or criminal statute – determinations; and serious bodily injury is simply a non-fatal injury or series of events which could have resulted in death. A motor vehicle collision in which a person was carelessly or recklessly driving and resulted in the death of another may be certified as an accident and prosecuted as vehicular homicide. These are important distinctions, and in death investigation follow the same investigative and evidentiary protocols.
A grieving family or a wronged victim, and a criminally charged or civilly accused defendant, all deserve the facts as proper interpretation of the evidence finds. Every case should start with – “We don’t know the answer, but will determine as best we can.” – with no indication of suspicion or promised outcome. Once you tell a family or jury, “This is obviously a murder” there is no turning back, no matter what the evidence presents. It is an injustice and a disservice to clients, families, and victims in life and death to do otherwise.
As Voltaire said, “To the living we owe respect. To the dead we owe the truth.”; or, as our recently passed friend and Carbon County (WY) Coroner Paul Zamora said, “Be Their Voice”. For our agency, these are self-evident. But no death is.
(*CCDIs, CFI-FTERs, CFSIs)
Associates in Forensic Investigations, LLC
A Rocky Mountain West Agency ~ National Consultations
(970) 480-7793 Office / TXT and (970) 480-7794 Fax
www.DeathExperts.com ~ associates@DeathCaseReview.com
Expert Legal Investigators and Medicolegal Consultants
Serious Bodily Injury & Death in Civil, Criminal, Probate and Interpleader Litigation