One of the most frequently encountered questions that investigators must answer is whether homicide or suicide is the cause of a shooting death. Many times there are indicators of both, making the call very difficult. Following is just such a case. It began with a 911 call from a male voice identifying himself as the victim and stating, "I've just accidentally shot myself." Upon arrival responding officers found the man lying on the bedroom floor dressed in pants but no shirt and shot in the right side of his chest. Gunpowder stippling was clearly visible in a six-inch (15.2-cm) circular pattern around the wound.
Upon rolling the man's body over, officers observed an apparent exit wound in the man's lower back. The exit wound was determined to be approximately four inches (10.2 cm) below the height of the entry wound, as measured from the bottom of the man's feet. A Ruger Single-Six revolver was lying on the floor not far from the man's feet.
The hammer was down on a fired cartridge case. There was another fired cartridge case next to the first. There were four live rounds in the cylinder. The firearms examiner who was called to the scene to assist recognized that, based on the rotation direction of the cylinder, the cartridge case not under the hammer would have been fired first.
Further examination of the scene revealed a bullet hole in the ceiling above the location of the body. The telephone was observed to be off its cradle and lying on a nightstand next to the bed.
Based upon the bullet hole in the ceiling and the exit wound being lower than the entrance wound, it appeared that the man was shot while bent over at the waist with the gun barrel below his chest and pointing upward. But did that necessarily mean homicide and not suicide? What about an accidental shooting? After all, the caller had said, "I've just accidentally shot myself"?
In order to be able to rule in or rule out a self-inflicted gunshot, either suicide or accidental, it was necessary to establish the
The weapon (Courtesy of the author)
approximate distance of the shot. This was possible due to the fact that there was a pattern of gunpowder stippling around the wound. The firearms examiner took the revolver and ammunition like that found in the gun and carried out test firings to duplicate the six-inch stippling pattern on the victim. The results indicated a shot between 12 and 24 inches (30.5 cm and 61 cm) from the body. Since this was within arm's length, a self-inflicted gunshot could not be eliminated.
A check of the revolver and ammunition had failed to produce any identifiable fingerprints. No check was made of the house itself, leaving the question open as to whether there had been an intruder, but there was no sign of forced entry or anything else to suggest that another person had been present at the time of the shooting.
Anytime the question of possible suicide comes up, it is necessary to determine if a possible motive for suicide exists. Things that are commonly linked to suicide include health problems, financial problems, and loss of loved ones. In this case none of those possibilities existed. For murder to be a consideration there would have to be a suspect with a motive and the opportunity to commit the act. Again investigators hit a brick wall. Neither suicide nor homicide could be ruled out with 100 percent certainty.
Some interesting evidence resulted from the autopsy of the victim. Linear soot deposits were observed in the palms of the victim's hands. There was also powder stippling on the inside of the victim's right arm, several inches above the wrist. Whenever linear soot deposits are found on a shooting victim and a revolver is involved, cylinder gap deposits are the most likely source. The gap between the front of the
The weapon (Courtesy of the author)
Position of the right hand (Courtesy of the author)
chamber and the barrel allows gases from the burning gunpowder to escape to both sides of the weapon. This results in the deposition of soot on anything in close proximity. Typically the soot deposition will be linear in appearance.
If the hand were placed over the side of a revolver and the revolver discharged, a linear soot pattern would be expected. A simulation of how the gun would have been oriented with respect to the left hand is seen in the figures.
The fact that linear soot deposits were also present in the palm of the victim's left hand meant that it, too, was in contact with the cylinder gap area. The positions of both hands are depicted in the following figure. The question of homicide or suicide could not, however, be answered on this alone. Certainly the fact that both hands had to be grasping the gun was more suggestive of homicide than suicide, but holding the gun in that manner still permitted firing by using one or both forefingers. The bullet hole in the ceiling and the trajectory of the bullet through the body certainly did not suggest suicide, but what about the 911 call? The question that had to be answered was whose voice was that? Unfortunately by the time investigators thought about that, the tape had been erased. There was then no way to verify that the victim was really the caller.
There was still the consideration that the shot was accidental, just as the call had stated. After all, there was no apparent motive for either suicide or homicide. The firearms examiner had pointed out that the gun could only be fired when the hammer was fully cocked and the trigger pulled. It could not fire as a result of falling and hitting the
floor. If it was accidental, then the victim had to have been handling it with the hammer cocked—not a very wise thing to do, for sure.
The investigator decided to test the accidental theory by cocking the weapon, holding it in the manner indicated by the soot deposits, then bending over with the arms extended as if the gun was falling to the floor and he was grabbing for it. As the butt of the gun made contact with floor, he found his forefinger could go against the trigger hard enough to make the hammer fall. Thus, accidental firing could not be ruled out.
At this stage the investigator has to look at which of the three possible scenarios is most probable. In addition to the lack of motive for suicide, the fact that the shot entered the lower right chest made suicide a very unlikely prospect. There being no evidence to support homicide other than the position of the hands around the gun, the only option left was accidental. The fact that testing indicated that the weapon could be unintentionally discharged, coupled with the content of the 911 call, verifiable or not, left accidental as the most likely cause. Was that what actually happened? Most likely we will never know.
Crime scene reconstruction relies heavily on the physical evidence left at the scene. For firearms evidence the function testing of weapons, bullet and cartridge case examinations and comparisons, gunshot residue analysis, and trajectory analysis are areas that are frequently involved. Fingerprint evidence can specifically place a suspect at a crime scene. Various methods of physical and chemical means are available to the examiner for the development of fingerprints. Additionally, useful information that can assist in the reconstruction is obtained through the criminal investigative efforts. The combination of the physical evidence test results and the results of the criminal investigation lead to the proposal of a probable scenario for crime.
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