“We have staged suicides that are actually homicides,” says Dr. Katherine Ramsland. “We have deaths where [the manner of death] is mistaken.”
When someone dies under suspicious or ambiguous circumstances, psychological autopsies may provide answers that physical evidence cannot. They offer analysis into the deceased person’s mental state and personality, helping investigators to determine whether they’ve identified the correct manner of death.
What a psychological autopsy involves and its importance are relatively unknown to the public. Dr. Ramsland, a professor of forensic psychology at DeSales University and author of the fictional thriller, I Scream Man, spoke to A&E True Crime about the science of psychological autopsies, famous criminal cases that called for them and how they’re used in an investigation.
What does a typical psychological autopsy involve and what does it aim to achieve?
A psychological autopsy’s primary aim is to make determinations about the mental state of the decedent to see if there’s support for a finding of suicide. They’re typically performed in undetermined crimes. Natural, accidental, suicide and homicide are the manners of death. If you cannot decide from obvious things, or think there’s something suspicious about it, or you’re going to do a reexamination of a case, you might bring in someone who’s an expert on behavioral analysis and the psychological state. They will do a psychological autopsy, which is to study as much as possible the mental factors of what happened to somebody in the weeks, days and hours leading up to their death.
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Sometimes people think of psychological autopsies as any kind of postmortem analysis. For example, I’ve seen a psychological autopsy done in a school shooting, even though there’s no mystery of what happened there. They think that it’s a dissection of the person’s ideas and motives.
Psychological autopsies really began in the 1950s and ’60s as a mental state examination to see if there’s support for a finding of suicide. That’s how it began, and that’s how it was done for decades.
When it comes to discerning between suicide, homicide or accidents, what are the main signs to look out for or prioritize?
About 75 to 80 percent [of people who die by suicide] do give signals ahead of time. These things are not typically sudden, but you have to dig to find the trail that leads to the person’s state of mind.
There’s a shortcut tool, a mnemonic that reads, IS [ideation and substance abuse] PATH [purposelessness, anger, trapped, and hopelessness] WARM [withdrawal, anxiety, recklessness, and mood changes]. The letters correspond with some of the signals of suicide, like ideation, depression, constricted thinking and feelings of hopelessness and withdrawal. The formula is a shortcut to see if we need to take it further and dig deeper.
Doing so mostly involves talking to people who knew the decedent. You’re going to want to do more than just speak to relatives. You want to speak to coworkers, teachers, ministers, friends, spouses…as many people as possible. By asking around, the person performing the psychological autopsy may find out that the decedent has withdrawn lately, given things away, started talking about death, asked about suicide methods or looked it up on their computer. Also, if they seem to not be eating well or having difficulty sleeping. It expresses a sense of hopelessness in someone who believes they would be better off if they weren’t around.
You’re trying to get a well-rounded mini biography of the decedent to see if they were afraid of someone. Maybe they were being stalked. Maybe they were being bullied. Did they have a negative change in their life? Were they going through a divorce? Have they lost a child or a job?
Any famous cases in which a psychological autopsy was used?
There was a police officer in [Fox Lake], Illinois, named Joe Gliniewicz. He was retiring and he called in that he was following some men because they were suspicious. He ended up shot and when they got to him, the first responders thought it didn’t look right. His gun was within throwing distance… it was close by in the weeds.
It turned out he set up the suicide to look like a homicide because he was being cornered for theft for taking public funds that were supposed to go to [a youth police training program he led called the Fox Lake Police] Explorer Post. A new auditor had come aboard and was going to investigate him, and he realized the jig was up.
He [also] wanted to make it look like a homicide so his family would get insurance money.
The community spent a huge amount of money looking for homicide suspects who didn’t exist. Only after doing an investigation of his background and some of the problems he had gotten into did they realize this could be a suicide.
[Gliniewicz] knew how to set up crime scenes because he had demonstrated this for the Explorer program, and [he killed himself] in the area where he would do some of those demonstrations. It became clear that he had staged this to deflect attention to the homicide, but it turned out it was a suicide.
[In December 2007,] Jocelyn Earnest was found shot in the head with a typed note [even though] she did not typically type things. Nothing in the note made any sense to anyone who knew her. She had been texting a friend just before her death. The friend knew that the [estranged] husband [Wesley Earnest] had been harassing her because they bought a house and they owed more than the house’s worth.
The odd thing [in the note] was the line, ‘My new love will never leave the family.’ No one understood what that was about because she didn’t have any new boyfriends. Also, the fact that the note was typed, but there was no computer in her home or workplace. The note and the circumstances of her death suggested a homicide staged as a suicide—which it turned out to be.
When you do a psychological autopsy of who Jocelyn was, it didn’t make sense that she would type a note. She didn’t have any depression. She wasn’t seeing a therapist. She was happy and had a good job. When you looked at her life circumstances, and that she was afraid of her ex-husband, it all pointed to, we need to investigate this more deeply. This is not suicide.
Are you aware of instances where investigators were truly puzzled about whether someone killed themselves or was murdered?
A famous case that is still unsolved is [the 2011 death of] Rebecca Zahau. She was a young woman who was involved with a very wealthy man, [pharmaceutical executive Jonah Shacknai]. One day, their son, [6-year-old Max Shacknai,] had fallen down some stairs. Days later, Zahau—who had been watching him—ended up naked, dead and hanging off an outdoor balcony with a bizarre contraption of ropes and knots. There was also a hand-painted message on the door that might have been a suicide note. [Max died of his injuries three days after his mother’s death.]
Zahau’s death was declared a suicide. The family sued law enforcement, saying there was no way she committed suicide. Looking at her background it was difficult to know.
It was a very bizarre way to commit suicide. It could have been an accidental suicide… She was trying to make it look like something, but [she] didn’t intend to die. It could have been a homicide staged as a suicide. It could have been to get back at her for not watching the little boy the way she was supposed to. She could’ve been despondent, although nobody said that was the case. She did have a weird background of fake kidnapping attempts.
Even though law enforcement has declared it a suicide, it’s still unresolved and there’s still potential for reopening the case.
What are some of the limitations of psychological autopsies? What factors can complicate the process?
The limitations are always dependent on the quality of the information you get from the people who knew the deceased. I did one that was a contested suicide. The [decedent’s] supposed friends didn’t have much to say. They just said they didn’t think he killed himself. It turned out that every time he tried talking to somebody about his problems, they just said, ‘I don’t have time for this.’
[In this instance,] the quality of the information was poor because they hadn’t taken much time to find out his mental state and the person contesting [the suicide determination] was a relative who hadn’t seen him in six months. If I can’t get good information about this person’s mental state at the time they took their life, that’s going to be a limitation.
Also, although the American Association of Suicidology and other groups have made efforts to standardize the psychological autopsy protocol, it’s very difficult to determine what questions should be asked, since death incidents often have their own special set of circumstances. Sometimes those protocols are insufficient, the questions are irrelevant or you don’t have access to the people you need to.
Why that matters is about getting into court and being able to testify with scientific methodology. If you can’t get into court to do that, often what you have to say about a death incident won’t be part of the investigation. It doesn’t make psychological autopsy any less valuable. It’s certainly valuable for the families of the decedent.