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
that 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 descender was aware that a safety net
had been installed just below at 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.
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
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.
The room on the ninth floor, whence 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.
They both said they thought the shotgun was unloaded. The old man
said it was his 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, 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. The case now
becomes one of murder on the part of the son for the death of
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.