Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Psychological Autopsy for Death Investigation

You Decide

Heres a case as reported in local newspapers.   The names of the parties have been changed.  If you want to try a psychological autopsy yourself based on the previous information, read the case description and write down the questions you think need to be asked to help investigators determine whether this incident was an accident or a homicide.  Then compare your list with what an investigative team, including a psychologist, wanted to know.  Finally, look at the case outcome and decide whether the answers to your list of question might have helped to make this determination.

Around noon one day, John, age 12, shot his mother in the face with a Remington .22-250-caliber rifle.  According to initial reports based on what John had said, he took the gun from a cabinet in the backyard shed and went into the house with it, shooting his mother.  Afterward, he went out and told his two younger sisters, and they all went inside and then emerged again to ask neighbors for help.  Johns father, who was away at work at the time, insists he kept his hunting rifles unloaded and locked in the shed.  He had one of only two keys with him and his wife had hidden the other.  He had shown John how to properly use a gun and had sometimes taken him hunting.

When police arrived, John first told them that an intruder had come through the window and shot his mother, but when his grandparents pressured him, he admitted that he had done it.   He said he did not know that the gun was loaded.  He had just wanted to handle it.  He had taken it into the house to show his mother and it had accidentally gone off, shooting her in the face as she sat on the couch talking on the phone.

The spent cartridge was found outside in the back yard and there was no evidence that the shed had been broken into.   The gun had been replaced in the cabinet.

Now make your list before going on to the next section.   What would you want to know to try to determine Johns state of mind?

***

From these spare details, the official story would raise a lot of questions for a psychological investigator trying to determine Johns intent.   Among them might be:

  • Was the shed left unlocked or did John find the second key?   If he found the key hidden, why did he take it?
  • If he had merely wanted to handle the gun, why didn't he ask his father to show him after his father came home?
  • Is there any evidence that he loaded the gun, and if so, why would he have loaded it?
  • Why did he run to his sisters after he shot his mother, then back into the house with them, and then out to replace the gun before getting help?   (There were neighbors around.)
  • What would the sisters report if interviewed separately, especially since one of them said she saw John take the gun from the cabinet?
  • Why did they all go into the house after John's report, instead of at least one of them running for help?
  • If it was an accident, why did John initially deny his involvement before changing his story and make up a tale of an intruder?
  • Prior to the incident, did John show interest in violence or display any violent behavioral patterns?
  • Does he have a psychiatric history?
  • One neighbor said to a reporter that John was a "loner" and "appeared stressed."   What behaviors expressed that?
  • How did John behave in detention?
  • How did John react to questions about his relationship with his mother? 
  • How did John relate to his father?

Now look at the results of the investigation.

***

A number of factors from the investigation shed a negative light on the incident.   First, the forensic lab found that John had held the gun just inches from his mothers face when he shot her.  Second, he had used his mothers key to get into the shed, his fingerprints were on an ammunition box, and he had actually locked his sisters into the shed after loading the gun.  

As for the facts that came out about Johns character during a psychological assessment, he had no identifiable mental illness but had gun-related issues.   He was also prone to violence and deception when frustrated.  Once when he was 10, his mother had denied him permission to go on a fishing trip, so he took the familys van, crashed it and told police he had been kidnapped.  He had shot a neighborhood girl, 8, in the stomach with a BB gun and was seen shooting at her dog.  He also had pointed the gun at other children on other occasions, including placing a gun against the head of a boy at Bible camp and threatening to kill him.  His reported responses on psychological evaluations were brief and mechanical, and probably not expressive of his true emotions.  He showed no affection for family members and offered no warm family memories.

His father worked away all week and was only home on weekends.   His mother ruled the household during the week and home-schooled all three children.  Some further background indicated that John felt his mother was controlling.  She insisted they play in the yard and did not even like them to cross the street.  John was 12 and may have been feeling rebellious over these restrictions.

After shooting his mother, the evidence shows that John walked outside, ejected the spent cartridge in the yard, unlocked the shed and told his sisters that their mother was dead.   A neighbor who assisted them said that the girls were shaken but John was not.  He exhibited no emotion whatsoever.  He quickly lied to neighbors and to police about the gun cabinet being unlocked.  He had taken a gun safety course and knew how to handle one.  He also said that his mother had asked him to wait a moment because she was on the phone.  The person who had been on the other end said that no such conversation had taken place.  The victim had stopped talking mid-sentence.

John was also a fan of television shows like CSI that feature crime scene investigations.   He mentioned this when neighbors called the police to the scene, and he apparently expected to see the same sort of activity he had watched on television.  His reaction was more that of curiosity than of horror.

Given the physical and psychological evidence, it seems clear that the incident was no accident.

While psychological autopsies can provide helpful information in equivocal cases, they should be considered only one of many tools in an investigation.   Given errors of memory, motives for cover-up, and incompleteness of detail, its not a sure-fire technique.  Yet a psychologist or psychiatrist can draw out information that others may not consider and can provide a professional perspective that makes a significant difference in how a manner of death is determined.

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