When the scene of a person’s death is discovered, it is not always obvious whether their demise was due to natural causes, foul play or if the person intentionally ended their own life. The importance of investigating the scene and being meticulous in that investigation is crucial if the truth is going to be revealed. Suicide can be an extremely difficult concept for family members to understand especially when in many cases there were no warning signs or outward behaviour in the previous weeks or days suggestive that this course of action was intended or even a risk. As a result, some suicides can cause family members to jump to the notion of foul play as a way of understanding what has happened, unable to face the reality of their loved one’s actions.
While recognizing these cases it cannot be ignored that there are a number of cases where a death has been ruled a suicide, indicating the individual involved has taken determined actions to end their own life, when the truth does actually lie in murder. In these cases, the perpetrator has often taken steps to ‘stage’ the crime scene in order to throw crime investigators and lead them towards a suicide ruling. The explosion of true crime documentaries, programmes detailing forensics and crime scene analysis are watched all over the world and it is not only innocent individuals with a healthy interest who are tuning in, but criminals and people who can pick up information from these broadcasts and publications which can help them cover up a crime.
There is certainly plenty of speculation surrounding famous individuals who had fans and followers whose deaths have been ruled as suicides with many believing these celebrity figures were, in fact, murdered. The death of Marilyn Monroe in August 1962 was ruled suicide by an overdose of sleeping pills with a history of substance abuse and mental illness; however, there have been numerous conspiracy theories over the years suggesting the film star and Hollywood icon was murdered. Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of rock group Nirvana, was found dead from a gunshot wound in April 1994 at just 27-years-old with a suicide note lying next to him. He too had a history of mental health and addiction issues with suicide attempts taking place in the months before he was found dead. Many have struggled to accept the official ruling on his death believing he was murdered including theories that his wife Courtney Love was involved in his death and staged the scene to make it look like suicide.
In a book entitled Practical Homicide Investigation written by homicide and forensic consultant Vernon Geberth, who has personally been involved in over 8,000 death investigations through his roles as Lieutenant-Commander of the New York City Police Department and Commanding Officer of the Bronx Homicide Task Force, he highlights what he considers to be the seven key mistakes that can be made in the investigation of a crime scene for death classification. These include making assumptions that the case is a suicide based on how the scene was initially reported and not undertaking a thorough and detailed case analysis due to the early belief that the case was a suicide.
Geberth believes all death inquiries should be conducted as if they were homicide investigations until the facts of the case undoubtedly prove it was a suicide. This way the case and crime scene will be assessed and investigated to its fullest extent ensuring nothing is missed. Once an investigation has been carried out, crucial elements such as the collecting of forensic evidence, crime scene photographs, and critical interviews cannot be reversed and completed again from a different perspective at a later date.
In a curious ongoing case reported recently here on Sword and Scale by Heather Sutfin, the death of Kenneka Jenkins at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Rosemont, Chicago is believed to have been the result of a freak accident after her body was found inside a walk in freezer within the hotel after a party she attended there. The circumstances of her death do raise suspicions and her family firmly believe Kenneka died through foul play.
A further case which has caused a great deal of debate is the death of Rita Maze, whose body was found inside the trunk of her car parked near Spokane International Airport on 7 September 2016. Rita died from a gunshot wound to her chest. The night before her body was found she had contacted her family frantically telling them she had been kidnapped and was being held inside the truck of a car. After nearly 12 months of investigation, authorities last month officially ruled her death as a suicide to the surprise of many including her family. “Based on the evidence gathered, analyzed and processed, we have determined Maze’s death was the result of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. We will not be releasing any more details,” the FBI said on their ruling.
When a body is discovered, it is often the autopsy which can reveal how and why that person died. Natural causes, hHomicide, accidental death, and suicide are the classifications open to a pathologist when determining the manner of death. There are some cases where such a determination is not possible with any confidence leaving only the option of ‘undetermined’ available as a cause of death on the death certificate. While many cases will be very clear from the outset to both police investigators and pathologists, many are not and take attentive detective work and in-depth investigation to piece together the last hours of a person to ultimately try and discover the truth behind their death.
Suicide and murder are at opposite ends of how a person may have died, however, they are equally traumatic for those who are left behind. When it comes to whether a person has taken their own life or if their life has been taken by another, the truth is vital not only for the individual themselves but for their family members who need answers as to how and why their loved one is suddenly no longer with them.