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 "B."
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 trigger.
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 true story from Associated Press, Reported by Kurt Westervelt)