Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Psychological Autopsy for Death Investigation


The practice of psychological autopsy began with the frustrations of a coroner.   Wrightsman tells us that in 1958 in Los Angeles, Chief Medical Examiner Theodore Curphy was overwhelmed with too many cases of drug-related deaths.  It wasnt always clear whether these were suicides or accidental overdoses, so he enlisted the help of Edwin S. Shneidman and Norman Faberow, co-directors of the Los Angeles Suicide Prevention Center, to assist him.  Shneidman coined the term in 1961 when he wrote an article and identified 16 categories for inclusion in the process.  Even with that, there were (and still are) no standard procedures to follow, although psychologists have now developed a guide that lists 26 separate areas for focus.

To begin to think of a death as a potential suicide, there must be evidence that a wound could have been self-inflicted and there must be some way to determine whether the victim understood the consequences of what he or she was doing.   In other words, what was the degree of lethal intent?  That means compiling information about the persons last hours, days, weeks, and sometimes even years.

A close examination of the death scene may indicate degree of intent and lethalitya secluded place and the use of a gun indicating a higher degree than using slow-acting pills in a place where the victim is likely to be discovered.   It may also be the case that people who knew the deceased have motives for concealing what may have happened, so the investigator needs to be proficient in deception detection as well.  At times, the results will be clear, while at other times, the deceased's state of mind before death cannot be known with certainty. 

The methods of writing a biography are not dissimilar, because the information gathered is generally quite personal.   Its also similar to the victimology assessment of a behavioral profile.  Some mental health professionals estimate that a comprehensive psychological autopsy takes 20 to 30 hours to develop, while others believe it takes much longer. The amount of time put in depends on the goal, and often on the funds available for it.

To put together a sense of the persons final days and hours, a psychologist might use any number (or all) of the following sources, with the awareness that anyone he or she interviews may contaminate as easily as facilitate the process:

  • Interviews with eyewitnesses or police officers at the scene
  • Medical autopsy reports (which can reveal things about the victim, such as substance abuse, that even close friends did not know)
  • An examination of the death scene, at the scene or via photographs
  • Journals, correspondences or suicide note associated with the victim
  • Type of books the victim read, music preferred or videogames played
  • Behavior patterns noted by others, especially unusual recent behavior
  • Records (school, military, phone, employment, medical, psychiatric)
  • History of medication, if any
  • Acquaintance reports (accounts of last encounters or odd incidents)
  • Comparisons against archival data (suicide studies, mental illness and risk prediction for suicide)
  • Empirical Criteria for Determination of Suicide (a 16-item scoring system with a 92% accuracy rate)
  • Reports about conflicted relationships or other stressors (life events that precipitated a loss of hope)
  • Changes in wills or life insurance policies
  • Death history or mental illness in family

To put together a description that will include:

  • Basic info (age, address, gender, marital status, family, occupation, religion, personal interests)
  • Details of death
  • An incident reconstruction
  • Victims familiarity with death methods/accessibility
  • Victims stress reaction patterns
  • Recent stressors in victims life
  • Role of alcohol or drugs in lifestyle
  • Fantasies/dreams/night-time disorders/premonitions
  • Changes in victims habits or routines
  • Signs of preparation for ending life
  • Occupational history (successes/failures)
  • Relationship history
  • Assessment of intention and motive
  • How others react to the death (this can be significant, but also misleading)

The final result should be a fairly accurate sense of the victims personality, habits and behavior patterns, specifically including any recent changes.    Often the likely manner of death will emerge from these facts.

Aside from determining the manner of death, psychological autopsies may serve other purposes as well:

  • In the event of suicide, determine the triggers
  • In the event of homicide, help with crime reconstruction and block attempts by a defendant to raise the victims suicide as a defense
  • Answer questions about testamentary capacity prior to death
  • Postvention for survivors (helping survivors deal with grief and loss)
  • Gain actuarial information about behavior, for improving databases
  • Help with expert testimony at trial

Is this kind of testimony always accepted in court, given the strict standards for scrutiny on behavioral science?   Not always, but it has been increasingly visible, especially in appeals courts.  Real problems with the lack of standards have been noted, such as in the case below, which was taken to a military court. 

Roy Hazelwood's The Evil Men Do
Roy Hazelwood's The Evil Men Do

In 1989, the FBIs Behavioral Science Unit was asked to examine an incident aboard the U.S.S. Iowa.   An explosion had occurred in one of the gun turrets, causing the deaths of 47 sailors.  The Navy suspected one man, Gunners Mate Clayton Hartwig, who was among the dead.  Special Agent Roy Hazelwood was among those involved in the analysis, and he writes about it in The Evil That Men Do.  Describing his involvement as an equivocal death analysis, he based it on the Navys stash of letters, journals and bank account balances associated with Hartwig, and interviews with his friends and family members.  Hazelwood and his colleagues concluded that there was good evidence that Hartwig had acted intentionally, killing himself and the other men in a suicide-homicide.  He alone was responsible.

D.A. Joshua Marqui
U.S.S. Iowa fires its guns

Then 14 psychologists were asked to review the matter, and they rejected the manner in which the agents (and Navy) had drawn their conclusion.   No scientific methods were used and some of the claims made had little supporting evidence.  While this panel did not reject the findings outright, they could not support the degree of confidence with which it was written.  While they were not unanimous, only three felt the Navys conclusions were appropriate.

That presents a problem for the courts, specifically because little research has been done to prove that a psychological autopsy is a reliable scientific method.

Nevertheless, a psychological autopsy can be useful for other purposes, and the most famous one on record took one psychologist several years to compile.

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