|At the 1994 annual awards dinner given for
Forensic Science, AAFS
President Dr. Don Harper Mills astounded his audience with
the legal complications of a bizarre death. Here is the story:
On March 23, 1994, the medical examiner viewed the body of
Ronald Opus and concluded that he died from a shotgun wound
to the head.
Mr. Opus had jumped from the top of a ten-story building
intending to commit suicide.
He left a note to the effect indicating his despondency. As
he fell past the ninth floor his life was interrupted by a
shotgun blast passing through a window, which killed him
instantly. Neither the shooter nor the deceased was aware
that a safety net had been installed just below the eighth
floor level to protect some building workers and that Ronald
Opus would not have been able to complete his suicide the
way he had planned. "Ordinarily," Dr. Mills
continued, "a person who sets out to commit suicide and
ultimately succeeds, even though the mechanism might not be
what he intended, is still defined as committing
suicide." That Mr. Opus was shot on the way to certain
death, but probably would not have been successful because
of the safety net, caused the medical examiner to feel that
he had a homicide on his hands.
In the room on the ninth floor, where the shotgun blast
emanated, was occupied by an elderly man and his wife. They
were arguing vigorously and he was threatening her with a
shotgun. The man was so upset that when he pulled the
trigger he completely missed his wife and the pellets went
through the window striking Mr. Opus. When one intends to
kill subject "A" but kills subject "B"
in the attempt, one is guilty of the murder of subject
When confronted with the murder charge the old man and his
wife were both adamant and both said that they thought the
shotgun was unloaded. The old man said it was a
long-standing habit to threaten his wife with the unloaded
shotgun. He had no intention to murder her.
Therefore the killing of Mr. Opus appeared to be an
accident; that is, if the gun had been accidentally loaded.
The continuing investigation turned up a witness who saw the
old couple's son loading the shotgun about six weeks prior
to the fatal accident.
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.
Since the loader of the gun was aware of this, he was guilty
of the murder even though he didn't actually pull the
The case now becomes one of murder on the part of the son
for the death of Ronald Opus.
Now comes the exquisite twist.
Further investigation revealed that the son was, in fact,
Ronald Opus. He 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 23rd,
only to be killed by a shotgun blast passing through the
ninth story window. The son had actually murdered himself so
the medical examiner closed the case as a suicide.
(A story from Associated Press, Reported by Kurt Westervelt
-- Many sources have confirmed that this was a
story made up by Dr. Mills and delivered at the 1994
conference as an example of an amusing convoluted scenario.)