1994's Most Bizarre
At the 1994 annual awards dinner given by the
American Association for Forensic Science, AAFS President Don Harper Mills
astounded his audience in San Diego with the legal complications of a bizarre
death. Here is the story.
"On 23 March 1994, the medical examiner viewed
the body of Ronald Opus and concluded that he died from a shotgun wound to
the head. The decedent had jumped from the top of a ten-story building intending
to commit suicide (he left a note indicating his despondency). As he fell
past the ninth floor, his life was interrupted by a shotgun blast through a
window which killed him instantly. Neither the shooter nor the decedent was
aware that a safety net had been erected at the eighth floor level to protect
some window washers and that Opus would not have been able to complete his
suicide anyway because of this."
"Ordinarily," Dr. Mills continued, "a person who sets out to commit
suicide ultimately succeeds, even though the mechanism might not be what he
intended. That Opus was shot on the way to certain death nine stories below
probably would not have changed his mode of death from suicide to homicide.
But the fact that his suicidal intent would not have been successful
caused the medical examiner to feel that he had 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 and he was threatening her with
the shotgun. He was so upset that, when he pulled the trigger, he completely
missed his wife and the pellets went through the a window striking 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 this charge,
the old man and his wife were both adamant that neither knew that the shotgun
was loaded. 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 Opus appeared to be an accident. That is, the gun had been
"The continuing investigation turned up a witness who saw the old
couple's son loading the shotgun approximately sixweeks prior to the fatal
incident. Conspired 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
death of Ronald Opus.
There was an exquisite twist. "Further investigation revealed that the
son [Ronald Opus] 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 23, only to be killed by a shotgun blast through
a ninth story window. "The medical examiner closed the case as a suicide."