Many times investigators and experts are confronted with cases which are equivocal: uncertain or questionable. For example, a death appears to be suicide but may actually be murder staged to appear to be a suicide. There are also cases which appear to be suicide but are actually accidental deaths. This article will provide a questionnaire for investigators and experts when confronted with these types of cases. The questionnaire is provided to attempt to determine the mental state of the victim just prior to his or her death and whether or not the victim was suicidal.
1. A young man is found hanging in a garage. The death appears to be suicide but is actually accidental. (See auto-erotic death).
2. A husband returns home and finds his wife fully clothed at the bottom of their pool. He brings her to the surface and begins CPR with negative results. Victim's car keys, and camera are found in the pool. A local doctor/coroner pronounces victim deceased with manner of death as accidental drowning. The autopsy a few days later confirms that victim died of strangulation. Her death is ruled a homicide. The unsecured crime scene has now been contaminated due to the passage of time. Interview of two persons close to the victim ruled out suicide.
3. A man's body is found on a bridge. He has one gun shot wound to the head. There are circular patterns of blood near the body. A weapon is found below the bridge. Analysis determines that this is the weapon that was used to shoot the victim. A murder investigation is opened but closed after a psychological autopsy and additional investigation indicated that the victim most likely took his own life and staged it to look like a homicide.
Equivocal Death Questionnaire
I just can't take it anymore.
I'd be better off dead.
The world would be better without me.
A. Sleep problems
B. Physical ailments or disability
C. Persistent headaches
D. Loss of appetite
G. Intestinal disturbances
H. Decreased sex drive or sexual problems
I. Emotional problems
Identifying information (full name, address, date of birth, place of birth etc.) should be obtained for the person interviewed so that they can be located at a later date in case they need to provide a deposition or testify. The best persons to interview for this questionnaire are those who had a close personal relationship with the victim but not necessarily a relative. Relatives will sometimes give biased answers since they may not want to make negative comments about the victim. Plus, the victim may not confide in a relative for fear of being judged. Instead, look for a close friend who knew victim for much of his or her life and/or someone who would be considered a best friend.
The Equivocal Death Questionnaire is a valuable tool for investigators and experts when confronted with deaths that suggest suicide. The purpose of the questionnaire is to determine the victim's state of mind prior to his or her death and rule out suicide or confirm that the victim was suicidal at the time of his or her death.
The sources for this article:
1. "Equivocal Death Questions Handout", National Center for the Analysis of Violent Crime (NCAVC), FBI Academy, Quantico, Virginia, 1995.
2. "Empirical Criteria for the Determination of Suicide Manner of Death", by David A. Jobes, Jay O. Casey, Alan L. Berman, and Donald G. Wright, Journal of Forensic Sciences, Volume 36, Number 1, January 1991, pages 244-256. This document contains a very detailed "Death Investigation Checklist" which should be very helpful to medical examiners, investigators and experts.
3. Training, background, education, and personal experience of the author as Coordinator for the NCAVC from 1985 through 1999, and Forensic Consultant and Expert Witness from 2001 through the present.
Dan L. Vogel is Forensic Consultant Expert Witness based in Oklahoma City. He has 27 years of Federal law enforcement experience and has testified as an expert in Federal and state court. Pro Bono work is performed on a case by case basis. He is currently a member of the Consulting Committee, The American Investigative Society of Cold Cases. firstname.lastname@example.org
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