Murder or Suicide
How You (and Your
Detective) Can Tell the Difference
By Michele Acker
Was it murder or suicide? That's the
question that launches many a mystery novel. Your antagonist may wish
to confound police and detectives into believing that a death was
self-inflicted; it's your detective's job to determine otherwise. So
how can you keep the reader confounded while giving your detective
enough clues to solve the mystery?
First, let's look at the definitions
Murder: When someone knowingly causes the death, or injuries
resulting in death, of another person.
Manslaughter: When someone causes the death of another through
extreme indifference to human life.
Self-Defense: When someone causes the death of another in order to
protect himself or his family.
Suicide: The deliberate taking of oneís own life.
These definitions are pretty
consistent, but with the right information, the boundaries can be
blurred, either accidentally or by design. For instance, murders can be
made to resemble suicides, or manslaughter can become murder if
sufficient motive and premeditation can be proved. If your antagonist
is cunning enough, a suicide could be staged to look like a murder.
This article will give you some basic
information, such as types of weapons used and what the choice of weapon
says about a person, helping you set up an effective and believable
murder for your protagonist to solve.
The first and most often used weapons
are firearms. Firearms, which include a wide range of handguns and
rifles, account for three out of every five murders committed in
America. Most handguns are fast and easy to use and require little, if
any, training. With a gun, it doesnít matter how big, or physically
able you are, anyone from a small child to an elderly person can pull a
trigger. Women rarely commit murder, but when they do, a gun is most
often the weapon they chose because it eliminates the physical
differences between the sexes, allowing a hundred pound woman to kill a
three hundred pound man, when any other weapon must be used at close
range and can easily be taken from her.
When it comes to suicide, 64% of men
and 40% of women make firearms their death of choice because itís quick
and relatively painless.
Following are a few ways to tell murder
Where on the body the injury
occurred: A shot to the side of the head, in the mouth, or to the
front of the chest is usually suicide. Wounds located anywhere else
are most likely homicide.
Distance of gun from the body:
Most suicide shots are at contact or near contact range, causing a
burn mark around the wound and leaving gunpowder residue (which can
be wiped off). At contact range, and if the gun is fired just above
a bone, such as the skull or the sternum, a star-like wound is
produced. Anything further away is likely homicide.
Angle of the shot: Most suicide
shots are angled slightly upward.
Number of shots fired: After one
shot, even if a suicide victim isnít dead, he would likely be
unconscious or physically unable to fire a second time. Multiple
shots usually indicate homicide.
Presence of gunpowder residue on
victim's hand: If a man shot himself, there would be powder residue
from unburned carbon on the hand that fired the gun.
Shots through clothing: A suicide
victim will rarely shoot through clothing. If he shoots himself in
the chest, which is unusual, he will open his shirt to expose the
skin. Shots through clothing suggest homicide.
History, a note, other factors: If
the victim left a suicide note, or was known to have personal
problems, or if there was evidence of drug use or drinking, suicide
Evidence of a struggle: If there
are scratches, cuts, bruises, homicide is likely.
How fast a person dies depends
significantly on where the wound is located and how quickly he can get
help. A shot to the head might kill, or it might not. A shot to the
abdomen might take hours to kill the victim, or he might bleed to death
in half that time. A gunshot victim can be rushed to the hospital, have
a bullet removed from his abdomen, be well on the road to recovery, then
die a week later from some unforeseen infection. Anything can and does
happen, which makes any scenario you come up with feasible for the needs
of your story.
Knives are close-combat weapons.
Unlike firearms, which allow you to murder at a distance, knives involve
direct contact between the victim and the assailant. Because of this, a
man usually stabs another man, or a woman. Itís very rare for a woman
to stab a man, even in crimes of passion, because itís much too easy for
a larger, stronger male to overcome his smaller, weaker assailant. Most
crimes of passion involve a man killing a woman with whatever weapon
happens to be within reach, a kitchen knife, a fireplace poker, a heavy
vase, or any number of other blunt objects. When a woman kills a man in
a crime of passion, itís most often with a gun, his own if itís
available. Women tend to see a kind of justice in killing a man with
his own weapon.
As with gunshot wounds, there are
several factors to be taken into consideration when determining if a
death is homicide or suicide.
Defensive cuts: In a homicide,
there will be defensive cuts on the palms of the victimís hands and
on the underside of her arms as she tries to fight off her attacker.
Number of wounds and their
location: A murder usually involves multiple stab wounds to the
side, back or stomach. In a suicide, while there may be additional
cuts across the wrist and tentative test stabbings to see if it will
hurt, or to work up courage, there will usually only be one wound
and most likely in the chest.
Location of the murder weapon: In
a suicide, the weapon will be at the scene with the victimís
fingerprints on it. In a homicide, the weapon is often missing.
Presence of a note: A suicide
victim will almost always leave a note.
Stabbing through clothing: A
suicide victim will rarely stab herself through her clothing,
instead she will open her shirt to expose the skin. Stabbing
through clothing, even if thereís only one wound, may indicate
While accidental hanging is rare, and
homicidal hanging is even rarer, hanging is the third most common form
of suicide and accounts for 16% of all male, and 13% of all female
suicides. Most people who commit suicide by hanging, jump from a chair
or a ladder, choking to death slowly. Rarely is the neck broken. In
order to break a neck, a drop of six feet or more is required, which
rarely happens except in execution hanging.
Hanging, whether done with rope, an
electrical cord or a belt, always leaves an inverted V bruise, and is
easy to tell from ligature strangulation (murder), which leaves a
straight-line bruise. Hanging compresses the veins, but arterial blood
flow continues, causing small bleeding sites on the lips, inside the
mouth and on the eyelids. As with ligature strangulation, the face and
neck are congested with blood and become dark red.
Ligature strangulations are almost
always homicide and the victims are almost always women. Often the
murderer uses more force than necessary to kill the victim, causing deep
bruises and abrasions around the neck. The victim will usually
struggle, which results in damage to both the interior and exterior
structures of the neck and throat.
Accidental strangulation is rare, but
does happen, usually when a tie or a scarf gets caught in power
machinery. Consider causing a murder that looks like an accident by
catching a womanís scarf into machine gears. Or hanging a man by
pushing him off a chair and making it look like suicide? The police
would have a very tough time proving it wasnít.
Drowning is a type of suffocation; the
water prevents oxygen from getting to the brain. Itís a slow, agonizing
death with the victim struggling desperately to stay alive. Because of
this, suicidal drowning is very uncommon. Once the lack of oxygen makes
itself felt, the victimís survival instinct takes over until all he can
think about is getting air into his lungs. All thoughts of suicide are
abandoned in the face of actual death.
Most deaths by drowning are accidental
and usually involve the abuse of alcohol or drugs. But one has to
wonder how many of those Ďaccidentsí are more than they appear? How
many times has someone gotten away with murder because no proof could be
found that a drowning was homicide? Maybe more than we think and hereís
Homicidal drowning is almost impossible
to prove by an autopsy. Drowning is a diagnosis of exclusion. In order
to prove murder or suicide, surrounding facts have to be taken into
account, such as other wounds, signs of struggle (overturned furniture,
etc), or the presence of a suicide note. Most of the time, thatís all
the proof the police have. If a person is drowned, say in a bathtub,
then thrown into the pool to make it look like an accident, even
forensic science wonít be able to prove it. They can only speculate
about how the death occurred.
One of the problems of diagnosis is,
that unlike drowning in a river or the ocean where samples of the water
in the lungs can be tested for salt or other contaminates to determine
where the drowning took place, the same cannot be done with the water in
a pool. Chlorine dissipates from the lungs almost instantly. By the
time an autopsy takes place, thereís no trace left. If a murderer were
to hold a personís head underwater in a pool, the police would have no
way to prove it was homicide, in fact, most drownings are ruled
accidental for just that reason.
There are a few factors that could
suggest whether a drowning is homicide, suicide or accidental, but with
the proper set up, you can make a fictional drowning look like anything
Shallow water: Drowning in shallow
water could indicate either an accident or murder, especially if the
victim is undressed. A killer will remove the victimís clothing to
make it look like an accident. If the body is fully clothed, it is
most likely a suicide since the victim doesnít want to be found
Suicide Note: The presence of one
usually indicates a suicide, but could be faked.
Evidence of other injuries: If the
victim shows evidence of gunshot wounds, bruises or cuts, itís
likely murder. The discovery of alcohol or drugs at the scene could
indicate an accidental drowning.
Drowning is a form of murder that you,
as a writer, can use to good effect. Why not stage a murder and make it
look like an accident, or use an accidental drowning to frame an enemy
for murder. You protagonist would have a hard time solving the case
Poison, especially an overdose of
pills, is the second most popular form of suicide, at least with women,
accounting for 38% of all female, and 15% of all male suicides. The
reason is easy to understand. With the right kind of poison, itís a
relatively painless death, no muss, no fuss, no blood to mess up the
bedding. And if someone doesnít really intend to die, a pill overdose
gives her the highest chance for survival if sheís found and taken to
the hospital in time to have her stomach pumped.
Poisoning is a very popular form of
murder, especially in literature. It can easily be slipped into a
victimís food or drink and depending on the intended outcome, can either
act slowly, over a long period of time, or rapidly, within minutes or
hours. Certain poisons can imitate diseases, causing the doctor to
misdiagnose a medical problem, or can cause a steady weakening of the
body, making it susceptible to other, more serious diseases.
Poisons can be found anywhere, in
virtually anything, from plants to animals to the pain killer you take
for your headache. Anything, in a high enough dose, can be fatal. And
if your victim has other problems, such as heart disease, the right kind
of poison can look like a heart attack. Unless the doctor has
suspicions and orders an autopsy with a drug screen, itís very likely
your murderer will never be caught. With the right poison, and the
knowledge of how it affects the body, you can stage any type of murder
your plot calls for. Poisonous plants made into lethal salads, deadly
insects imported and tucked into the victims bedding, the wrong kind of
mushroom cooked into an appetizing dish, or street drugs slipped into a
personís drink. The choices are numerous. (See
To Poison Your Fictional Characters) for a look at some of the
common poisons available.)
murder -- in literature that is -- can be fun as you cause your
detective innumerable headaches trying to solve the difficult crimes
youíve set him. Sprinkle your plot with plenty of bodies and readers
will clamor for more.