Discussion Board

Equivocal Deaths and Serial Crimes

While most deaths are determined to be from natural causes, accidents and suicides are also frequently investigated in an MLDI office with most offices only occasionally investigating homicides. The available facts, forensic, and medical evidence are often all that is needed to determine the cause and manner of death in routine cases. However, on occasion a case involves limited or confusing facts that make the determination difficult; often these cases include death scenes that have been altered or staged. These are called equivocal death scenes.

An equivocal death is a death in which the cause of death can be determined but the manner of death is still in question. The most common of these cases are homicides staged as suicides or suicides staged as homicides. These cases can result in guilty persons not being caught, innocent parties being jailed, and the inability for families to have closure or to receive financial- or property-related death benefits. Other equivocal deaths may include deaths where a cause or manner can’t be determined because of the state of the body (skeletal remains, decomposition, no body) or due to alterations made to the crime scene by persons wanting to hide evidence or confuse the manner of death.

An equivocal death investigation consists of two parts: 1) an analysis of the original case to determine if errors occurred and if so, 2) an investigation of all aspects of the victim’s life pertinent to the death (victimology), a reconstruction of the crime to determine possible manner of death, and an analysis of the behaviors of the perpetrator(s) at the scene to determine a possible motive for the crime and attempt to identify suspects.

While serial crimes are rarely equivocal deaths, they may suffer from some of the same problems in their investigation. These crimes may feature bizarre or deviant behavior at the crime scene, they may include aspects introduced to confuse the crime scene and to enable the suspect to elude capture, and they may involve multiple cases spread over time or involving multiple jurisdictions—some spread over large distances. In these cases, it is possible that a killer can have many victims that have not been identified as part of a series. Often with these cases, it is the ME/C office that recognizes the similarity between cases. This is because ME/C offices often have staff members who remain in their positions for many years, some completing their whole career in one office. That office may also serve a large jurisdiction policed by several law enforcement agencies. In these instances, the consistent factor in the investigations will be the ME/C and the death investigators. They may be the first to recognize a pattern of deaths based on injuries to the victim or factors at the scene.

In cases of serial crimes, equivocal deaths, and cold cases, it is a best practice to have a team or task force bringing a wealth of knowledge and perspectives to the investigation. These types of cases are good candidates for behavioral analysis, previously referred to as “profiling,” to assist in understanding victimology and possible motivations of the killer(s). This process may be able to determine new leads and new suspects but will also be able to determine areas of investigation not to pursue or types of suspects unlikely to have committed the crime that aids in focusing the suspect field.

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