1994's MOST BIZARRE SUICIDE
At the 1994 annual awards dinner given by the American Association 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 to the head. The decedent had
jumped from the top of a ten-story building intending to commit suicide (he left
a note indicating his despondency). As he fell past the ninth floor, his life was
interrupted by a shotgun blast through a window, which killed him instantly.
Neither the shooter nor 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, Dr. Mills continued, 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 stories below probably
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 and 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
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.
There was an exquisite twist. Further investigation revealed that the son, one
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- story
building on March 23, only to be killed by a shotgun blast through a ninth story
The medical examiner closed the case as a suicide.