Hanging Under Investigation

The following link is to an article by Jeremy Hudson of The Clarion Ledger:

“Death of Union girl, 9, found hanged under investigation.”

It was sent to me by a reader (range314) who questioned the likelihood of a 9 year-old girl committing suicide. I responded that the occurrence is rare, but it does happen. The youngest asphyxial death I have ever worked was ten years old.

I liked the article and thought it was worth commenting on because of how accurately it reflects a key element of death investigation. The subtitle says it all—“Police to determine whether child victim of accident or crime.?

The role of a medical examiner or a coroner is to determine the cause and manner of death. An autopsy is essentially a diagnostic examination allowing the pathologist to determine the cause of death. Manner of death is simply how the death is classified. In this case, the cause of death is the hanging itself and the manner of death could ultimately be ruled as a homicide, accident, or suicide.

The individual certifying the death will ordinarily postpone determining the manner until the law enforcement agency has concluded their investigation—as the coroner does in this case. An autopsy provides information that is vital to the pathologist, but it is not intended to provide a manner of death. In most cases it is actually the investigative work of other agencies that the pathologist relies on.

I am always amused at detectives that act as though an autopsy is going to tell them whether or not a person with an intraoral gunshot wound committed suicide. An autopsy is going to tell them that the person died as a result of a gunshot wound inside the mouth. Unless there is physical evidence on the hands of the deceased, an autopsy won’t tell them who pulled the trigger. Whether the death was a suicide or a homicide will depend on their investigation.


3 Responses to “Hanging Under Investigation”

  1. 1 Amy
    December 9, 2005 at 9:19 am

    thanks so much you just had to tell a storie that happened on my b_day, cause now you ruined my birthday and that is so sad about the 9 year old kid.

  2. 2 Terri
    March 5, 2006 at 4:44 pm

    I do understand that sometimes other investigative agencies other than the coroner are relied upon to determine manner of death, but let’s say someone has a gun shot wound. All agencies know who shot this person. The question is “was it justifiable or not?” Doesn’t the coroner list the manner as homicide regardless of the justifiability??

  3. 3 Dianna
    July 19, 2006 at 9:06 pm

    My sister recently was discovered by her husband , hanging in the barn. She lived in a rural setting and was isolated. There was a 2 year history of spousal abuse and in fact her husband had been charged and was convicted of assult against by sister. He served 6 weeks in jail, was on probation and required to receive treatment for anger management. I recently returned from a meeting to speak with the law enforcement who dealt with the case. They informed me that they were aware of a 2 year history of spousal abuse. They stated that they were wary when they were called to the scene because of the history. They said they could find no evidence that there was foul play involved and that it was a simple suicide by hanging. There was table at the scene with a large plastic drum on top. They said they saw a footprint in the dust and oil on the drum but did not check to see that it matched her shoe size (which was small for an adult – size 5) They also said that one of her shoes lay approx 20 feet from the body. They assumed that she had kicked off the shoe in her struggle. They also stated that there was no rigor mortis of the body.
    After phoning the coroner, I was told that I could not ask for a full autopsy and in fact they did only a superficial or external autopsy. They did say that there was no tissue under the finger nails and no scratches or marks on her neck other than the ligature mark.. My question is … if she struggled as she died enough to kick off her shoe would she not have had some sign of grabbing the rope or trying to loosen it from her neck. I understand that in a short drop hanging, regardless of how committed the individual is to taking their life there is an automatic response to preserving her airway. The only toxicology study they did was for blood alchohol level. Nothing else. My second question is why would they not do a complete autopsy when there was a history of spousal abuse, she was isolated and found by her husband. Why did they not do a full toxicology screen? They also did not estimate the time of death. I would really appreciate any answer you could provide me with especially in what they look for in a short drop hanging. Thank you so much. Dianna

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