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Forensic Medicine

Shotgun suicide with a difference

Initially, it appeared to be a straightforward shotgun suicide, then two more wounds were seen

Forensic image

Peter B Herdson

MJA 2000; 173: 604-605

The scene - Autopsy findings - Interpretation - Discussion - Acknowledgements - References - Authors' details
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  In February 1995, a death in parkland close to residential property in Canberra was reported to the Australian Federal Police. The body of a man had been found at the edge of a steep slope, about 150 metres from his home. He was lying on his left side with his head towards the top of a ridge. There was a lot of blood on his right shoulder and an obvious injury to the lower jaw and neck. A pump-action shotgun was lying about a metre from the body with the barrel facing up the slope, and a pair of shoes lay next to the gun. The action of the gun was open and contained a fired No. 2 shot shell case which had not been ejected. The muzzle end of the barrel was bloodstained and smudged, consistent with the barrel being held by both hands.

Initially, it appeared to be a straightforward shotgun suicide. When the body was turned over, however, two additional gunshot entry wounds were seen on the chest. To suicide was added the possibility of murder.



The scene

The police forensic team conducted a detailed search of the property (Box 1), finding a 12 gauge No. 2 shot shell cartridge on a sand pile near the rear stone wall of the property, with bloodstains on the ground nearby. Further examination of this area revealed shotgun pellet marks on the wall and some fragments of flesh. A second fired 12 gauge No. 2 shot shell cartridge case and an unfired cartridge were found on the ground close to a vehicle parked about 10 metres from the boundary of the property. A fragment of jaw with teeth and metal dental work and several bloodstains were found at this site, and a 12 gauge plastic shot shell wad was found 15 metres away.



Autopsy findings

The body was that of well-built, well-nourished, muscular white man of 39 years, 168 cm tall and weighing 80 kg. There was a gaping wound in the front of the neck slightly to the left of the midline, extending from the level of the lower mandible 9 cm downwards, measuring 9 cm from medial to lateral edge (Box 2A). This wound, which was consistent with a shotgun blast, showed some soot marks around part of the irregular edge; on dissection it was established that the anterior part of the larynx had been largely removed by the blast and there was blood and cartilaginous and muscular debris in the tracheobronchial tree. The carotid arteries and jugular veins were intact on both sides. The lower mandible had been fractured and some teeth were missing.

On the anterior chest wall, there was an injury consistent with a shotgun blast, consisting of an entry hole about 2.5 cm towards the midline from the left nipple at about the level of the 5th rib (Box 2B). On dissection, this entry wound, which measured 2.5 x 2.3 cm and showed powder marks in a semilunar fashion on the upper rim, was found to be continuous immediately beneath the skin, outside the rib cage, with a large soft-tissue wound to the left and below the left nipple measuring about 12 x 8 cm (Box 2C). Further dissection showed that this wound had not penetrated the rib cage.

Also on the anterior chest wall was another injury consistent with a shotgun blast. This wound was slightly to the left of the midline of the lower sternum, and measured about 3 x 2 cm, with powder marks in a semilunar fashion on the lower edge of the wound (Box 2D). This entry wound had a trajectory which was slightly up and to the left, and had completely blown apart the heart, leaving only shreds of cardiac muscle. There was about 800 mL of blood in the left hemithorax and 300 mL of blood in the right hemithorax, and the left lung was lacerated. A 12 gauge plastic shot shell wad and a number of No. 2 shot pellets were found in the mediastinum.

There was mud over both knees and postmortem lividity and rigor mortis were present. There were no other significant external findings, and the remainder of the autopsy was unremarkable.

Blood taken at the time of autopsy did not contain ethanol.



Interpretation of the scene and autopsy findings

The most likely chain of events in this intriguing case was as follows.

The man had taken the shotgun, which measured 885 mm from muzzle to trigger, and loaded four 12 gauge No. 2 shot shell cartridges into the tubular magazine, cocked the weapon and loaded a cartridge from the magazine into the breech.

He then got into a stooped position near the sand pile adjacent to the rock wall of the backyard. The butt of the shotgun was most likely resting on the ground, with the gun held to the right of the deceased and the muzzle in contact with the centre of the chest. He used the fingers or thumb of the right hand to pull the trigger. The shot charge and wad entered the subcutaneous tissues at a low angle, travelled outside the rib cage, and exited on the left side of the chest. The remainder of the shot charge, wad and particulate matter then hit the rock retaining wall. The action of the shotgun was then cycled, ejecting the shell case onto the sand pile.

The man then walked to the vehicle. He loaded another cartridge from the magazine into the breech of the shotgun. Holding the shotgun to his right, with the left hand holding the barrel muzzle against his throat, he used the fingers or thumb of the right hand to pull the trigger. The shot charge and wad entered the right front side of his throat and exited on the left, taking a fragment of lower jaw with it.

After this second shot was fired, the shotgun most likely fell to the ground, where the action opened and ejected the shell case onto the ground. The impact also caused an unspent cartridge to fall out onto the ground.

The deceased then walked about 136 metres to the hill slope. He loaded the last cartridge from the magazine into the breech of the shotgun, then removed his shoes and lay on the ground on his left side. With the gun in front of him, he held the barrel with both hands, with the muzzle in contact with his chest. He used his toes to discharge the shotgun.

The shot and wad entered the lower chest area and penetrated up into the chest cavity, demolishing the heart. The shotgun then fell to the ground, causing the action to open. The body then slid a short distance down the slope.

At the coronial inquest, the Coroner and the lawyer representing the family of the deceased both attempted to replicate the man's supposed actions with the shotgun. The Coroner, some 20 cm taller than the deceased, with a longer reach, demonstrated that the barrel of the weapon was so long that, with a finger or thumb of the right hand on the trigger, the barrel could only contact the chest at an angle of about 45 degrees at best. Similarly, when the shotgun was held with its muzzle against the side of the neck, the barrel pointed forward and upward, as the right hand had to be a little to the rear of the body to press the trigger. These demonstrations explained why the first two attempts were not fatal, while the increased reach obtained by using a toe on the trigger resulted in the immediately fatal third attempt.



Discussion

Self-inflicted gunshot wounds are a common method of suicide, accounting for more than five per cent of all suicides in some series.1 Most of these deaths are caused by a single shot, usually directed to the chest or head. Occasionally, two shots have been fired in the suicide, either because the first shot was not immediately fatal2 or because a rapid-action weapon was used.

Suicides involving three shots are very rare, although a fascinating report was presented recently concerning the death of a prisoner in the Tower of London in 1585. In that case, three balls were fired by the deceased into his chest from a pistol.3

This report describes a suicide in which death by gunshot was achieved on the third attempt, with the deceased showing remarkable stamina following the first two attempts. He walked about 15 metres from the site of inflicting the first, relatively superficial but obviously painful wound to his chest. At a second attempt, he shot out his larynx. Then, breathing through a gunshot-induced tracheostomy, he moved about 136 metres over parkland to make a final attempt.

Shotguns of this type are now banned in Australia. As suicide weapons they are far from ideal, partly because of the length of the barrel, and partly because of their significant recoil.



Acknowledgements

I would like to thank the Coroner, G G Dellar, and P McFawn, E M Fuderer, and R Tait, of the Australian Federal Police.



References

  1. Nowers M. Gunshot suicide in the county of Avon, England. Med Sci Law 1994; 34: 95-98.
  2. Solway R. Gunshot suicides in Victoria. Australia. Med Sci Law 1991; 31: 76-80.
  3. Gee DJ. Suicide of a prisoner with multiple missiles: a case report. Med Sci Law 1996; 36: 85-90.



Authors' details

Canberra Clinical School, Canberra, ACT.
Peter B Herdson, FRCPA, FRANZCR(Hons), Professor of Pathology, and Consultant Forensic Pathologist.

Reprints: Professor P B Herdson, Consultant Forensic Pathologist, PO Box 9585, Deakin, ACT 2600.
peterpathATbigpond.com

©MJA 2000
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1: A map of the property
Map of property
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2: The four significant wounds visible externally
Photo of wounds
The gunshot-induced tracheostomy (A) is obvious. The upper round entry wound (B) was continuous with the gaping exit wound over the left chest (C). The lower round entry wound (D) was caused by the third, fatal shot.
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