Accident, suicide or homicide?
The medical examiner is often called upon to
assist the court in determining whether the manner of death in a particular
gunshot fatality was accidental, suicidal or homicidal. While a number of
helpful features pointing to a specific manner of death may be present, few
areas in forensic medicine provide as much opportunity for misinterpretation as
gunshot wounds. There are nevertheless a number of well-recognised patterns
that can be of help in determining the manner of death.
These usually result from careless handling of
firearms, and children, hunters and inebriated persons are the most common
victims. The wound sites and firing ranges vary a great deal, depending on the
circumstances of death, and are therefore of paramount importance in
determining whether the shooting incident was truly accidental.
Suicide wounds, on the other hand, are usually
contact or close-range wounds and are found in classic locations, most often
the temple area (right temple in right-handed persons and left temple in
left-handed persons), anterior left chest, roof of mouth and center of
forehead. Occasionally the epigastric (upper middle region of the stomach) and
submental (below the chin) areas are chosen. Suicide gunshot wounds of the
limbs are extremely rare but may occur, and multiple suicide gunshot-wounds,
although uncommon, may be encountered, including wounds to the head.
The number of entry wounds in the body is not an
important factor when distinguishing between suicide and homicide, especially
when the gun is in the automatic firing mode. Because the safety-catch is
usually set on a selected mode, its position is significant in any firearm
investigation. In a reported case a person who committed suicide fired eight
bullets with one pull of the trigger. Perhaps he did not intend to fire that
number of bullets, but spasmodic movements, which usually accompany such a
violent death, might have caused continuous depression of the trigger until the
victim's muscle tone was lost completely. (If this is true, a case of suicide
with as many as 24 entry wounds should be possible, since the maximum capacity
of a magazine is usually 24 bullets.) In fact, the number of entry wounds is
more likely to be dictated by chance than by any other force. Even when the
safety-catch is set on the self-loading, single-shot mode, the number of shots
alone, without taking other factors or features into account, is not
pathognominic (indicative of the exact cause) because multiple suicide injuries
still occur, however rarely. An additional feature indicative of suicide rather
than homicide is that the clothing surrounding the wound may have been drawn
back and neatly arranged prior to infliction of the wound in order to avoid its
being soiled by blood. Finally, a suicide note may be found at the scene.
Homicide gunshot wounds are found on any part of
the body and are mostly inflicted from a distance beyond arm's reach
(intermediate or distant). Contact and close-range wounds are also found in
homicide cases. These wounds, if found in the classic suicide sites, may be
very difficult to interpret. Wounds found on the face, back or any inaccessible
part of the body should be presumed to be homicide wounds, until accidental
infliction is definitely ruled out.