Suicide? Or Murder? Or Suicide?
At the 1994 annual awards dinner given for Forensic Science, AAFS president Dr. Don Harper Mills astounded his audience with the legal complications of a bizarre death. Here is the story:
On March 23, 1994, the medical examiner viewed the body of Ronald Opus and concluded that he died from a shotgun wound to the head. The decedent had jumped from the top of a ten-story building intending to commit suicide.
He left a note to that effect indicating his despondency. As he fell past the ninth floor, his life was interrupted by a shotgun blast passing through a window, which killed him instantly. Neither the shooter nor the decedent was aware that a safety net had been installed just below at the eighth floor level to protect some building workers and that Ronald Opus would not have been able to complete his suicide the way he had planned.
Ordinarily, Dr. Mills continued, "a person who sets out to commit suicide and ultimately succeeds, even though the mechanism might not be what he intended" is still defined as committing suicide. Mr. Opus was shot on the way to certain death nine stories below at street level, but his suicide attempt probably would not have been successful because of the safety net. This caused the medical examiner to feel that he had a homicide on his hands.
The room on the ninth floor from whence the shotgun blast emanated was occupied by an elderly man and his wife. They were arguing vigorously, and he was threatening her with a shotgun. The man was so upset that when he pulled the trigger he completely missed his wife and the pellets went through the window striking Mr. Opus.
When one intends to kill subject A, but kills subject B in the attempt, one is guilty of the murder of subject B. When confronted with the murder charge, the old man and his wife were both adamant. They both said they thought the shotgun was unloaded. The old man said it was his long standing habit to threaten his wife with the unloaded shotgun. He had no intention to murder her. Therefore the killing of Mr. Opus appeared to be an accident, that is, the gun had been accidentally loaded.
The continuing investigation turned up a witness who saw the old couple's son loading the shotgun about six weeks prior to the fatal accident. It transpired that the old lady had cut off her son's financial support and the son, knowing the propensity of his father to use the shotgun threateningly, loaded the gun with the expectation that his father would shoot his mother.
The case now becomes one of murder on the part of the son for the death of Ronald Opus.
Now comes the exquisite twist. Further investigation revealed that the son was in fact Ronald Opus. He had become increasingly despondent over both the loss of his financial support and the failure of his attempt to engineer his mother's murder. This led him to jump off the ten-story building on March 23rd, only to be killed by a shotgun blast passing through the ninth-story window. The son had actually murdered himself, so the medical examiner closed the case as a suicide.