``The psychological autopsy is no less than a reconstruction
of the motivations, philosophy, psychodynamics, and existential
crises of the decedent."
- Edwin Shneidman -
Suggested prep readings:
In this assignment, we wish to:
- understand the meaning of psychological autopsy,
- learn about real-world applications of this psycho-forensic
investigation method, and
- consider some problems with psychological autopsies.
1.0 CASE SCENARIOS
- The U.S. Navy battleship Iowa explodes off the coast of Puerto Rico in
1989, costing 47 lives and millions of dollars in damages. There were no
surviving witnesses to the incident. The Navy launches an internal
investigation and bases much of its findings on an Equivocal Death Analysis
conducted by the FBI. The report implicates a young gunner's mate, Clayton
Hartwig, as being the cause of the explosion through his suicidal acts. He
is portrayed as a distressed homosexual who planned to take his life with
either disregard or intentional homicidal malice for his fellow sailors. At
least one year prior to the incident, he takes out a $50,000 life insurance
policy, the beneficiary being another sailor with whom Clayton allegedly had
an intense relationship. Later, a panel of psychologists reports to a House
of Representatives committee that the Navy's conclusions about the incident
are flawed. What really happened?
- In a widely publicized 1986 Florida case, the mother of 16 year-old Tina
Mancini is held responsible for the suicide of her daughter. How could this
happen? Mother and daughter had a chaotic and dysfunctional relationship
for years. Mom had been married and divorced three times during Tina's
life, and had often emotionally abused Tina and threatened her at various
times with a loaded gun. After the third marriage dissolved, financial
difficulties prompted the mother to falsify Tina's birth certificate and
coerce her into becoming a topless dancer to make money. Tina felt degraded
and helpless to do anything about this arrangement, but the money helped the
family and gave her hope to soon get away from her mother. Her mother would
take hundreds of dollars per week from her for "rent", and did not allow her
to quit despite Tina's wishes to do so. Tina shoots herself after another
argument with her mother, and the mother is subsequently charged by her own
father and son (Tina's brother) with forgery, child abuse and neglect, and
for essentially pushing her daughter to suicide by forcing her to be a nude
dancer. Should the mother be held directly responsible for her death?
- A fully clothed body is found face down in shallow water near the house of
the victim. Paul Artis, the victim, has a rope tied around his waist which
is attached to a small raft. He has a blood alcohol level of .11, no
evidence of external injuries, and has apparently died by drowning. Family
members say he was possibly assessing or trying to fix their pier, which was
damaged, and was exercising caution by using the rope and raft. When the
coroner ruled that his death was a suicide, life insurance benefits were
denied to his family and his wife sued the company. But was this death
purposeful or accidental?
- An elderly woman who lives alone is found dead in her bathroom with an
empty bottle of pills at her side. A farewell note is discovered in another
room. Was this death purposeful or accidental?
What exactly is a psychological autopsy and how does it relate to the above
case scenarios? First of all, reasons for dying fall into a few general
categories: natural causes, suicide, homicide, and accidental. In addition,
there are a few different types of death investigations according to
Shneidman. First, a medical autopsy is a close examination and partial
dissection of a dead body to determine cause of death, mode of death, and
the type and extent of illness or disease. Second, a forensic investigation
includes observations of the physical evidence at the death scene:
fingerprints, bullet holes, personal possessions or notes, position the body
is found in, messages found on answering machine, and many other details.
Third, an investigation may be helped by knowing statistics or demographics
related to the phenomenon in question. For instance, knowing the profile or
general description of kidnappers or suicide victims may give investigators
clues that guide their efforts in discovering what happened and who might be
responsible. But this type of information doesn't necessarily help us with
The fourth kind of death investigation is the psychological autopsy which
seeks to clarify the mode of death (natural, suicide, homicide, accident) by
figuring out the intention and mind-set of the decedent after the fact.
This kind of autopsy was originally intended to provide an objective report
to the medical examiner in cases where it was difficult to distinguish
suicide from accidental death. It is now used (primarily by law enforcement
and mental health professionals) in any situation where the cause of death
is ambiguous or the manner of death is unexplained. A psychological autopsy
was used in all of the above case scenarios except one. Which case did not require
an autopsy of this nature?
Conducting a psychological autopsy is time-consuming because a thorough
examination of a case entails interviews with potential witnesses to the
death, co-workers, employers, family members and friends. Sifting through
reports about the death scene (e.g., police and witness reports; autopsy and
toxicology reports), and inspection of the actual scene or video/audio
representations of it are also necessary procedures. Studying the victim's
medical, psychiatric, drug, social, employment and school histories as well
as related personal documents can provide tremendous insight into the
motivations of the individual prior to death.
As in homicide investigations, unexplained death situations include
examining questions related to possible motives, opportunity and method of
death. Factors to evaluate in potential suicide cases also include presence
of stressful and recent life events, discovery of terminal illness, history
of suicidal threats (most who commit suicide threaten first and/or provide
others around them with clues), history of depression or other psychological
disorder, changes in one's will or life insurance policy, changes in
behavior, giving possessions away etc. In general, a psychological autopsy
attempts to paint a picture of the deceased prior to death; to put together
an individual's history, lifestyle, inner conflicts, and way of perceiving
the world in a cohesive way that sheds light on the person's state of mind
and the nature and degree of their psychological pain.
We are often intrigued by the motivations, personalities and deaths of
famous people. For instance, formal and informal psychological autopsies
have been performed by professionals and the media (and by you) in the high
profile lives and deaths of Princess Diana, Nicole Brown Simpson, Phil
Hartman, Natalie Wood, Klaus von Bulow's wife, and Adolph Hitler. One
psychologist even spent years interviewing folks and studying the death of
Howard Hughes, the billionaire (Fowler, 1986). As mentioned above, a
psychological autopsy is sometimes conducted by law enforcement and
behavioral scientists when the circumstances surrounding a death are
unexplained and ambiguous, or when responsibility or proximate cause for a
death needs to be determined. There are many situations where
psycho-autopsies may be utilized including:
- Instances in which driving fatalities and small aircraft accident victims
need to be differentiated from suicides.
- Cases in which parents or family members may be held accountable for their
actions which precipitate the suicide of another family member, like in the
Mancini case. In this case the mother was convicted of the charges.
- Contested life insurance cases like the Artis scenario described earlier.
In that case, further investigation supported the medical examiner's opinion
that it was a suicide and not an accident. Mr. Artis had been arrested for
incestuous relations with his pre-teen daughter and daughter's friend, and
had just been told by his lawyer that an insanity defense could not be used.
- Cases in which jailed inmates (often young males) commit suicide during
their first day or two of incarceration, usually after being arrested for a
minor offense. Family members may sue if jail staff fail to conduct a
proper mental health and suicide assessment.
- Product liability cases. For example, the makers of psychoactive
medications such as Prozac (an antidepressant) and Halcyon (a benzodiazepine
used to induce sleep) have been sued because it was thought they were
proximate causes to suicide deaths. In a similar vein, employers may be
held responsible for perpetuating unsafe working conditions that may lead to
injury, which in turn leads to psychological distress (e.g., can't provide
for family anymore) and suicide.
- Medical or psychological malpractice cases in which standard professional
assessment and treatment is not provided, and the client then commits suicide.
- Differentiating autoerotic accidents which are fatal from autoerotic
suicides. Persons engaging in sexual activity may use devices to enhance
the sexual response (Annon, 1995). For example, in autoerotic asphyxia,
death may occur because a device meant to produce oxygen deprivation doesn't
work as intended (e.g., ropes, pillows, plastic bags).
- Psychological autopsy and personality analysis has also aided examinations
of history (e.g. Hitler) and literature.
5.0 CAUTIONS ABOUT THE USES OF PSYCHOLOGICAL AUTOPSY
Some argue that the use of psychological autopsies for legal purposes is
misdirected and possibly dangerous because:
- It puts forth tentative conclusions at best and pure speculation at worst.
- Standard and consistent procedures for conducting a psychological autopsy
have not been developed.
- The reliability and validity of these after death "psychological
reconstructions" has not been shown, and has even been questioned in other
contexts (e.g., determining the mental state of a defendant at the time of
the crime) in which the person(s) is still alive and available for assessment.
- Mental health professionals are not supposed to testify directly about
criminal responsibility, guilt or negligence (these issues are typically
within the direct purview of juries and judges), but in reporting the
findings from a psychological autopsy it is often necessary to report
directly on these matters.
- These methods have not formally been recognized as meeting the Frye test
(Frye v. U.S., 1910), which is a law of evidence that determines whether
mental health professionals can give courtroom testimonies about their
conclusions. Specifically, this rule states that the evidence or mode of
obtaining the evidence must be accepted as standard and valid within a
particular specialty field.
- Some types of evidence, although relevant, may confuse or mislead the jury
because they are not well understood, thereby potentially biasing their
decisions. Therefore, the risk of allowing this evidence into court may
outweigh its (probative) value. While some courts have admitted
psychological autopsies as evidence, other courts have not, which indicates
the legal system feels ambivalent or confused on this issue.
- What will roll down the slippery slope next? Extension of psychological
autopsies to situations or crimes in which the victim or perpetrator is not
dead? If the motives and acts of those that have died can be reconstructed
from after-the-fact interviews of third parties and other anecdotal
evidence, then it seems these same procedures can be applied to non-death
situations as well. This may be unwise given the current state of research
in the field and the commonly known potential for inaccuracy in clinical
- People involved in the case may lie to investigators or mental health
professionals for monetary gain or to protect the reputation of the deceased.
6.0 ASSESS YOURSELF
Place a check next to the statements below which are TRUE.
Personality psychology has much to offer in the way of
forensic applications. The psychological autopsy is one general methodology
that sheds light on what sometimes seems to be unknowable, that is, the mind-set and motivations of the deceased. However, cautions abound in regard to
valid and reliable judgments based on these procedures, so sometimes
unresolved issues of death need to remain just that.
Read more about it:
- Annon, J. (1995). The psychological autopsy. American Journal of
Forensic Psychology, 13, 39-48.
- Fowler, R. (May, 1986). Howard Hughes: A psychological autopsy.
Psychology Today, 22-33.
- Otto, R., Poythress, N., Starr, L., & Darkes, J. (1993).
An empirical study of the reports of APA’s peer review panel
in the congressional review of the U.S.S. Iowa incident.
Journal of Personality Assessment, 61, 425-442.
- Poythress, N., Otto, R., Darkes, J., & Starr, L. (1993).
APA’s expert panel in the congressional review of the U.S.S.
Iowa incident. American Psychologist, 48, 8-15.
- Shneidman, E. (1973). Deaths of Man. New York: Quadrangle.
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© Copyright 1998.
Robert J. Rotunda, Ph.D.
(firstname.lastname@example.org) All rights reserved.
Department of Psychology, University of West Florida, Pensacola, FL 32514