When we see these media stories, we expect our phones and emails to buzz with questions. What does this mean. Our standard response begins with, ‘without having all the information the medical examiner had, we simply do not know.’ In medicolegal investigation, determinations are made based on the medical evidence – not legal / criminal statutes or undue influences. Also in medicolegal investigation, this determination is based on a neutral investigation by the coroner / medical examiner’s office. There are five Manners of Death: Natural, Accident, Suicide, Homicide and Undetermined. From Dean’s book, ‘Practical Methods for Legal Investigations’ (www.PracticalMethodsForLegalInvestigations.com); our education, training and experience; and our extensive lectures and death investigation course (www.InvestigativeCourses.com), below are the definitions of Homicide and Accident. These determinations are based on the medicolegal preponderance, not the legal findings, of one Manner of Death to the exclusion of the others. Undetermined is for those rare times in which there is not an exclusion by preponderance.
- Homicide is the killing of a human being by another human being. The legal definition includes intentional and unintentional acts. A state execution or personal self-defense are examples of legal and medical homicides; whereas a death from a motor vehicle accident is a medical accident but could be charged as a legal vehicular homicide.
- Accident is a death caused by an unexpected or unplanned event. This may include negligence, or what is criminally charged as a homicide, such as vehicular homicide; or civilly as negligent wrongful death.
- Undetermined is used when the information pointing to one manner of death is no more compelling than one or more other competing manners of death in thorough consideration of all available information. For example, a gunshot wound without determining intent to inflict the wound would be ‘Undetermined’ – Suicide versus Accident.
According to information reported in the Baltimore Sun (http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/freddie-gray/bs-md-ci-freddie-gray-autopsy-20150623-story.html#page=1), “Freddie Gray suffered a single ‘high-energy injury’ to his neck and spine — most likely caused when the police van in which he was riding suddenly decelerated.” The state medical examiner's office concluded that Gray's death could not be ruled an accident, and was instead a homicide, because officers failed to follow safety procedures "through acts of omission." He was not belted in, but his wrists and ankles were shackled, putting him "at risk for an unsupported fall during acceleration or deceleration of the van."
Some may consider this Homicide due to the ‘unintentional act’. That is to say, were it not for: 1) the decedent being unrestrained; and 2) the careless driving of the police van – the death would not have resulted. However, there must still be knowledge, such as with a Suicide, the act may result in death. As an analogy, if a couple are driving home and the driver is intoxicated and through negligence the vehicle is crashed and results in the unrestrained passenger being killed – the Manner of Death is Accident, not Homicide. If both were killed, by this ruling (as reported) the driver’s death would be considered Accident. However, if the driver intentionally crashed the vehicle knowing it would cause death, the Manners would be Homicide and Suicide for the passenger and driver, respectively.
Of importance are two components: 1) reasonable expectation of a life-threatening injury; and 2) intent vs. negligence. Assuming the first component is determined, the second becomes the factor in the determining Homicide (by intent) or Accident (by negligence). This is important in the Freddy Gray ruling of Homicide. As an example, if a person were operating a vehicle in such an intentional manner that serious bodily injury or death would be known to likely occur. Should there be a fatal event, it is possible the Manner of Death would be Homicide. In our example, perhaps the driver and passenger were arguing, with intoxication not being an issue, and the vehicle were intentionally driven off the road or into an obstruction. In the Freddy Gray case, if the driver were intentionally driving in such as a manner that injury was likely and such injuries resulted in death, a ruling of Homicide would be appropriate. Recently, James Brady died – Press Secretary to then President Ronald Reagan at the time of the assassination attempt by John Hinckley Jr. It was determined that he died due to complications from the gunshot wound, and was therefore ruled a Homicide.
Circumstances and evidence from the medical and investigative processes are the underlying factors in determination of Cause and Manner of Death. It is easy for the lay person to confuse medicolegal Manner of Death and civil or criminal liabilities and acts. However, it is straight forward for a medical examiner (forensic pathologist) or medicolegal death investigator. This does not have any direct impact on criminal charges or potential civil litigation, such as in a wrongful death action.
When learning of high-profile cases in the media, we need take a step back and look at the entire scenario before jumping to false conclusions.
© 2015 by Associates in Forensic Investigations
Dean A. Beers, CLI, CCDI and Karen S. Beers, BSW, CCDI
Colorado Licensed Private Investigators PI2.0000050 and PI2.0000019
Cheyenne WY Licensed Private Investigators & Security (No. OL-15-31146)
Board Certified Legal Investigator / Expert Consultant (national)
Board Certified Criminal Defense Investigators
Certified in Medicolegal Death Investigations / former Deputy Coroners
Associates in Forensic Investigations, LLC
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Personal Injury, Negligence & Death in Civil, Criminal and Probate Litigation
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