CSI: Reality

I first sent this around to friends in September 1995. I never thought of it as anything but a joke, so I was surprised later to see many people insisting the story related a "true case". The facts are included at the end.

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At the 1995 annual awards dinner given by the American Academy for Forensic Science, AAFS President Don Harper Mills astounded his audience in San Diego with the legal complications of a bizarre death. Here is the story.

On 23 March 1994, The medical examiner viewed the body of Ronald Opus and concluded that he died from a shotgun wound of the head. The decedent had jumped from the top of a ten-storey building intending to commit suicide (he left a note indicating his despondency). As he fell past the ninth floor, his attempt on his life was interrupted by a shotgun blast through a window, which killed him instantly. Neither the shooter not the decedent was aware that a safety net had been erected at the eighth floor level to protect some window washers and that Opus would not have been able to complete his suicide anyway because of this.

Ordinarily, a person who sets out to commit suicide ultimately succeeds, even though the mechanism might not be what he intended.

That Opus was shot on the way to certain death nine storeys below would not have changed his mode of death from suicide to homicide. But the fact that his suicidal intent would not have been successful caused the medical examiner to feel that he had a homicide on his hands.

The room on the ninth floor whence the shotgun blast emanated was occupied by an elderly man and his wife. They were arguing and he was threatening her with the shotgun. He was so upset that, when he pulled the trigger, he completely missed his wife and the pellets went through the window, striking 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 this charge, the old man and his wife were both adamant that neither knew that the shotgun was loaded. 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 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 approximately six weeks prior to the fatal incident. 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.

Here was an exquisite twist.

Further investigation revealed that the son (who in fact was Ronald Opus) had become increasingly despondent over the failure of his attempt to engineer his mother's murder. This led him to jump off the ten-storey building on March 23, only to be killed by the shotgun blast through the window.

The medical examiner closed the case as a suicide.

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The Facts Behind the Story

"I made up the story in 1987 to present at the meeting, for entertainment and to illustrate how if you alter a few small facts you greatly alter the legal consequences. In 1994 someone copied it on to the Internet. I was told it had already garnered 200,000 enquiries on the Net. In the past two years I've had around 400 telephone calls about it -- librarians, journalists, law students, even law professors wanting to incorporate it into text books." --AAFS President Don Harper Mills, who added in a 1997 interview that "Some of it I wrote out, and some of it I invented as I went along."

So, note that even the introduction is faked: someone updated it to read "1994" when, in fact, it was presented to the AAFS in 1987.

Posted February 7, 2011

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