COMMON ELEMENTS OF SUICIDE INVESTIGATION

SUICIDE NOTES

Suicide notes are left (or at least, found) in less that 25% of all suicides.

Genuineness of the suicide note may be judged according to the following criteria, which are based on research in which some lay people were asked to write what they thought would look like genuine suicide notes. The bogus notes were compared with some genuine notes.

The note is more likely to be genuine if:

Handwriting....

The handwriting on a suicide note should be evaluated to see if it is the handwriting of the victim. Of course, this has to be done by an expert if an absolute determination is required. However, even a layman can make an educated guess as to whether the handwriting matches that of the victim. This could not be used for evidence, but it is adequate for guidance in an investigation.

Certain elements of handwriting are individual to people and are consistent throughout their writing. Handwriting experts believe that the following elements are of use in that regard.

Size....

Although size of handwriting can vary with the person's mood, most people always write in approximately the same size, from one document to the next.

Proportions....

Handwriting experts divide handwriting into three parts. These parts refer to the parts of individual letters. Lower case letters have upper ascenders, middle or body parts, and lower descenders. (Capital letters do not have parts.) The upper ascenders are such things as the loop of an "h" or "l". Lower descenders are things like the bottom loop of a "y". The middle or body parts are similar to the circular part of an "a".

Handwriting experts find that the proportions of the upper, middle and lower parts of letters are usually consistent throughout a person's handwriting. Capital letters are usually as big as the upper ascenders. The proportions of upper and lower ascenders as compared with each other and with the main body parts is typically consistent throughout a person's handwriting. For instance a person may have large upper ascenders and proportionately smaller body and lower ascenders, or any other combination. But the combination should be consistent from one document to the next.

Regularity....

A person's handwriting has a typical regularity. Regularity refers to the variation in the amount of space between letters and between words and a variation in the lengthwise size of each of the letters. A person will consistently have a higher or lower degree of regularity, but it will always be the same.

Slant....

A person's handwriting may slant to the left, right, or be completely upright, or it may not have a consistent slant at all. However, from one writing to another, the direction of slant or the lack of consistent slant should be the same.

Alignment on page....

People tend to place their writings on the same part of a piece of paper regardless of the size of the paper. They may leave wide left hand margins with no right hand margins, or any other combination. They may leave wide top margins or no top margins at all. But they tend to be consistent from one writing to the next.

Connectors....

The connections between letters usually have a consistent shape. They might be angular. They may loop upwards or downwards. But they tend to be consistent from one letter to the next and from one writing to the next.

Angle on page....

Some people angle their line of writing upwards or downwards, when they are writing on unruled paper. Some people fastidiously keep it precisely aligned with the top edge of the page. The angle may change as the writer goes down the page. This tends to be consistent from one writing to the next.

Spacing....

The spacing between lines and between letters tends to be consistent from one writing to the next unless the person is writing on a piece of ruled paper.

In order to evaluate handwriting, you have to gather some samples of the person's handwriting, not connected with the suicide note. There is always the issue of assuring that the writings you have collected did in fact come from the suicide victim. It is best to collect some from within the victim's residence and, also to attempt to gather some from friends and relatives to whom they may have sent or given writings.

Fingerprinting.....

If you have found a suicide note, you should probably have it fingerprinted. For that reason, you should handle it with a bit of care. You should also deetermine who else has handled the suicide note. The simple fact that someone else has handled the note does not mean that it cannot be accurately fingerprinted. It simply means that you have to get fingerprints from that person.

Timeliness....

Do not overlook the possibility that the suicide note may have been written sometime well prior to the suicide. Even accidental deaths are sometimes accompanied by suicide notes, if the person suffered from a suicide fantasy.

Where to look....

Although suicide notes are typically found within a short distance of the body itself, there is no rule that says that's where they have to be. Suicide notes have been found in school lockers, in cars, and even mailed to other people. They have been found hidden within personal possessions of the victim and amongst other writings. I once found one written in a school spiral-bound notebook in the middle of a bunch of blank pages. The notebook had been placed on a bookshelf amongst a bunch of other books as if the victim did not even want it found.

PSYCHIATRISTS

It has been my experience that psychiatrists are very cooperative with the police when one of their patience dies. If the apparent suicide victim does have a psychiatrist and the psychiatrist can verify that the victim did have one of the conditions known to cause suicide, then the investigator can have that much more confidence in the apparent cause of death.

However information from a psychiatrist should be evaluated in perspective. Remember that psychiatrists have a liability issue. They are frequently sued by the grieving family, who may feel that the psychiatrist's patient did not receive adequate care. Therefore, it is understandable if the doctor might overstate certain issues in his own favor.

Psychiatrists may feel that they have a privacy concern as regards to medical records of the victim. This is especially true when you are evaluating violence done to a still-living victim. Although medical records are typically considered private, they are subject to subpoena and search warrant. If your county has a coroner, the coroner is entitled to subpoena the records directly. Otherwise a subpoena can be issued by your county attorney's office. The subpoena will require that the doctor produce the medical records for use in the investigation. A psychiatrist is not "being a jerk" or acting guilty if he/she demands that you get a subpeona for the victim's records; it is their right to do so and if they are in a sensitive legal position, they would be foolish not to do so.

EVIDENCE OF PRIOR ATTEMPTS

Between 65 and 75 percent of all successful suicides are known to have had a prior attempt. Such attempts can be determined by specifically asking family and friends if they knew of any such attempts. Their family doctors may also know of such attempts. In addition, of course, police records are a readily available means. However, not all attempts which were known to family and friends were ever reported with the Police Department.

Not all actual attempts at suicide will become known to anyone. Many attempts are made privately. When they do not succeed or the victim changes his or her mind in time, the attempt may never become known. Investigators should look for scars on the wrists, scars consistent with bullet grazes, and should ask doctors if there was ever a report of "lost" prescription medicine. If the victim had ever been hospitalized, medical reports should be subpoenaed if necessary to evaluate the possibility of possible unrecorded prior attempts.

Nonetheless, quite a few attempted suicides never come to anyone's attention. Therefore, the lack of a known prior attempted suicide should not be emphasized as a problem in determining suicide as a cause of death.

MULTIPLE MEANS OF SUICIDE

It is not all the unusual for the suicide victim to use more than one means of killing themselves. The wrist slasher may also take pills (and in my experience commonly does). The hanging victim may also shoot or also attempt to shoot themselves or tie a bag over the head.

Although such multiple means of suicide may increase the violent appearance of the death scene, they should not be taken as eliminating suicide as cause of death. In fact, they help to verify the intent of the deceased and actually aid in the eventual finding of suicide as the cause of death.

THE WEAPON

If a weapon has been used in the apparent suicide, it should be handled just like a murder weapon. Leave it where you find it until a decision has been made about how to collect it, secure it, and transport it. At the scene, it should be carefully examined to the extent possible without distrubing it. Compare it with any entry and exit wounds. The nature of the weapon should be compared with any markings or trace evidence immediately observable on the hands or body of the victim. The handedness of the victim, the length of the victim's arms, and the nature and dimensions of the weapon should be compared to see if the victim could have caused the fatal injury.

Occasionally the weapon will have been moved within the scene or even from the scene prior to the police getting there. This is obviously a concern in an apparent suicide but it does not preclude that it could have been suicide. Investigators will have to account for the movements of the weapon. It may be necessary to persuade the friends and/or relatives of the victim or other lay people at the scene that their foolish attempts to hide the weapon were inappropriate. Those people who found the body should be reassured that even though they should not have moved the weapon, it is more important for them to attempt to recall how they moved the weapon so that its movements can be accounted for.

Occasionally the suicide victim will purposely arrange for the weapon to be removed by some sort of remote control device. The motive is usually to hide the fact that it was suicide. There is one case on record in Chicago where a businessman had arranged for a large insurance settlement to his family after his death. He shot himself in a locked room but had tied the pistol to a long elastic cord. The other end of the elastic cord was secured to the top of his chimney so that the gun was withdrawn into the chimney after he died.

PLANNED SUICIDES

It is most common for victims of Unipolar Affective Disorder (Depression) to plan their suicides ahead of time. They may plan them several weeks or even months in advance. Some people who have recovered from depression without suicide have admitted that they had been planning their suicides since they were children.

A person planning suicide will frequently set a date. They often choose a date that is significant to them. This is probably the reason that New Years Day and July 5 are the most popular dates for suicide. They might also choose a personal anniversary or the days immediately following a personal anniversary or significant event.

UAD patients frequently show an elevated mood once they have made the decision to kill themselves. Their friends and relatives will notice that they "seem to be feeling better". Their friends may recall conversation about a surprize on the date in question, or about things getting better on that date.

The scene of death at a planned suicide may show ritual and some personal drama such as the cleaning of the gun, arrangement of personal articles, and the leaving of notes. Prior to the suicide the victim may hint to their friends that something dramatic is going to happen or that some problem will be solved on the date of the suicide.

In addition, the suicide victim may arrange it so that a particular person finds the body or that a particular person at whom they are mad or whom they wish to feel bad about the suicide, should appear to be to blame for the victim's suicide. An element of planning for parents who commit suicide, is frequently to ensure that the children not be the ones to find the body.

ESTIMATING THE TIME OF DEATH

It is frequently helpful to be able to make some on-the-scene judgments as to approximate time of death. Unfortunately, there is no accurate way to establish time of death merely by observing the body. It is more useful to establish it by other means, such as witnesses, neighbors, unopened mail, or other testimonial or physical evidence. I won't discuss those methods here; they are common police tools.

However, the condition of the body is sometimes the only means available to determine time of death. At the least, the officer should make note of the condition of the body and its environment at the time he arrives at the scene, and take notes concerning the factors listed below. The information listed below should be used only for approximations. If it seems to indicates a time of death radically inconsistent with other evidence, then further investigation would certainly be in order, but do not dismiss the other evidence as necessarily false.

Body Temperature....

The human body typically cools at an average of 1.5 degrees per hour. Typically, it take the body 18-36 hours to cool to the ambient temperature. These are merely averages, though, to be used as a rule of thumb. There are many variables that can affect the cooling rate, such as the temperature surrounding the body, air movement, original body temperature, body weight, body fat (fat guys cool more slowly), clothing, and the surface on which the body is lying.

Medical examiners can take a "core" temperature to get the most accurate measure of the body temperature. The ME might not take it as a matter of routine, however, so if you think that the time of death may be important, you should request the ME to take a core temperature promptly.

Field officers can feel between legs, in armpits, or in other protected areas of the body to approximate core temperatures and get a rough idea of time of death. If such protected skin is still somewhat warm to the touch, it has only been 1-2 hours. The protected skin does not become cold and clammy until after 18-24 hours. These time estimates apply only to protected, indoor environments.

Eyeballs....

The eyeballs typically dry out within 15 minutes of death. This assumes, of course, that they are open. 3-4 hours after death, they will take on a brownish color ("tache noire") in the whites of the eyes, in the areas not covered by the eyelids.

Rigor Mortis.....

At the time of death, the blood stops bringing fresh oxygen to the muscles. The muscles continue to live long after the brain has died, using the oxygen left in the body. As the muscles begin to die from lack of fresh oxygen, they quit producing Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP), which is used by the muscles to process glucose and actin. Once the ATP remaining in the muscles is exhausted, the fibrous cells of the muscles, which normally slide past each other freely, become glued together by glucose and actin. This produces the stiffening effect called rigor mortis.

The basic factor affecting the timing of rigor mortis is the amount of excess ATP in the muscles at the time of death. ATP is usually present in the muscles, but exercise depletes it. In the case of an exhausted person suddenly dying, there might by no ATP left whatsoever, and rigor mortis would begin very quickly. For the same reason, accidental drowning victims typically go into rigor mortis very quickly. In the struggle to stay afloat, they exhaust their supply of ATP.

Some of the other factors affecting the onset and progress of rigor mortis are the initial temperature of the body, the ambient temperature, humidity, food in the stomach, and the presence of certain molds and bacteria both in the body and the environment. The age and fitness of the deceased also affects it. The times listed below are only typical averages for a typical american in a typical indoor american environment.

Rigor mortis typically begins within 2-4 hours. It begins simultaneously in all the muscles, but is apparent in the smaller muscles first, such as the jaw muscles. It progresses through the body for a period of 6-8 hours. After 36 hours (or as long as 6 days), secondary flaccidity may take effect, caused by the deterioration of the muscle tissues. However, in some cases, secondary flaccidity may not take place at all.

Rigor mortis is also useful to the investigator in determining whether or not the scene or the body have been disturbed since the death. Rigor mortis itself usually does not change the position of the body. The body merely stiffens in the exact position in which is it lying. Even a person who has died a very painful or dramatic death, will relax as they lose consciousness prior to death. The body should be in a relaxed position consistent with the cause and mechanism of death, if it has not been dis- turbed.

Intense heat in the environment, however, can change the position of the body. It is common in the case of fire deaths, or of a body subjected to intense heat after death, for the muscles to contract due to radical drying of the tissues. This causes a characteristic "pugilistic attitude" (arms and legs drawn into a boxer's stance) regardless of the original position of the body.

Livor Mortis (lividity)....

When the heart stops at death, the blood quits flowing, and blood pressure drops to zero. Under the influence of gravity, the blood then slowly drains to the lower-lying parts of the body. On the surface of the skin, this shows as a paleness to the upper portions of the body, and a dark-redness of the lowest- laying parts of the body.

Lividity typically begins within 2 hours of death; sometimes it begins to show within minutes. Within 8-12 hours it becomes relatively fixed. That is; it will not quickly drain back out if the body is moved. In some cases, however, it will never become fixed. In 3-5 days, lividity may become permanent.

In some older persons, lividity may never occur at all. This is caused by the poor condition of their circulatory systems prior to death, or low iron or oxygen content of the blood.

Lividity can look similar to bruising. However, bruising won't change color in a dead person, if you push on it with your finger.

Stomach contents....

Your medical examiner may be able to tell you some things about the time of death based on changes to the contents of the stomach. The normal digestive process stops a short time after death. The food in the stomach or intestines then changes state (rots) as it would in any warm, wet, highly-bacterial, enclosed environment. Since different types of food change states at different rates, some information can be inferred from the state of the food at the time of autopsy.

These determinations can only be made at the autopsy. However, the medical examiner will need certain information from the field officer in order to make them. He needs to know when and what the deceased last ate. The field officer must look for evidence and testimony to establish this, if time of death might be a factor in the investigation.

The stomach of a living person will empty itself through the normal digestive process, in 3 hours.

Putrefaction....

Like all of the other post-mortem change processes, putrefaction (the process of putrefying) proceeds at a rate that varies with a number of factors. If the body is in a frozen environment (such as a Minnesota forest in winter), for instance, putrefaction may not take place at all. Putrefaction is a longer-term process than the other post-mortem changes, and so is even more dependent on the environment.

The following schedule of putrefaction changes is "typical" for a normal American indoor environment:

Within 2-3 days, a greenish discoloration will be visible in the area of the cecum and stomach (the belly). The body will begin to smell.

After 1 week, the trunk of the body should be greenish-purple. The skin is typically marbled a purple-brown along the network of the blood vessels. The skin loosens and slips easily off the body. The odor is quite strong.

After 2 weeks, the skin typically blisters as pockets of gas are trapped under it. The trunk becomes swollen and distended. Black fluid seeps from, or accumulates in, all of the body orifices.

At 3-4 weeks, the body is typically fully ballooned. The face is greenish-purple and bloated. The hair and nails are loosened. The odor is overpowering.

Maggots....

Even maggots, distasteful as they may be, can help determine time of death in some cases. This is usually only useful when the death has occurred within two weeks.

Flies may begin to lay eggs in the eyes, orifices and open wounds of the body with a few hours. Most species of fly only lay eggs in the daytime, but some only lay eggs in the nighttime. This might be useful if the death had occurred within 12 hours.

These eggs can hatch within 24 hours. The maggots will be fully grown within 4 days. They will become flies within 2 weeks, and may lay a second generation of maggots.

To use the maggots to establish the time of death, collect a sample of the oldest, largest maggots. The medical examiner can submit them to an etymologist, to establish their age.

Unusual processes....

When the body lays in a warm dry environment with enough ventilation, it may become mummified. This is an exception to the normal putrefaction process. In these cases, the body will be fully dried out, and the skin will be leather-like. This process takes about one year.

In some circumstances, external bacteria may combine with wet conditions to turn the body tissues into a soapy wax-like substance. This is a rare situation, called adipocere and usually only involves part of the body. It is more likely to occur under water.

In water, the processes mentioned above typically take place only half as fast as in air. In cold waters, such as are typical in Minnesota, it is even slower. Drowning victims, however, typically go into rigor mortis very quickly.

a name=bruises>EVALUATING BRUISES

There are a variety of markings on a dead body which may look like bruises. A medical examiner can easily tell the difference with a simple incision, and microscopic examination can even set a time frame upon any bruising that is found. However, for field use, the following information might be handy.

A reddened area on the skin which does not have the streaky, blotchy appearance of lividity may indicate a blunt trauma injury which happenned shortly before the time of death. After the slight reddening effect of a recent blunt trauma injury, bruises go from red to dark blue, violet, green, dark yellow, and pale yellow. However, there is no "typical" timing within which this change of color takes place. In fact, some bruises turn brown almost immediately. Under a microscope, a medical examiner can give you a fairly good guess as to how old the bruise is. However, this opinion is neither reliable nor consistent between medical examiners. There is simply no scientific means of determining how old a bruise is.

The amount of bruising caused by a blunt trauma injury is not a good indicator of the amount of force applied. In general, fit and healthy people bruise less. There is no scientific method of determining how forceful a blow was, based solely on the amount of bruising it produced. Common sense appraisals based on your own experiences, are as valuable as any medical opinion in evaluating such force.

A medical examiner is usually able to tell if a bruise was caused after death or before death. However, even under a microscope, they are not always able to make a determination.

SECURE ENVIRONMENTS

Occassionally, a field officer's report on a suicide will state that the victim was in a room or house, locked from the inside. The apparent implication is that only the victim could have inflicted the fatal wound, after securing him/herself in the room.

Every officer has been to burglaries where it was difficult to find the point of entry. Therefore, the description of a house or room where an apparent suicide occurred, as having been "secured from the inside" should be taken with a bit of skepticism. Unless a truly thorough and detailed inspection of the premises has been conducted, no one can state that forced entry was not made.