"She Would Never Kill Herself"

The psychological autopsy and real versus staged suicides.

Posted Jul 05, 2018

Few things are more devastating than losing a loved one to suicide. Complicating the normal grief process is the inevitable second guessing by the survivors; could I have done something? Seen something? Said something? In fact, the event is so traumatic that it’s not uncommon for family members to refuse to accept suicide as the cause of death, even when holding a death certificate in their hands. And survivors don’t only want to protect themselves; I’ve known of spouses hiding a suicide note from the police, not because they want to make sure they get life insurance benefits that might be nullified by a suicide exclusion (which does happen and which is why insurance companies are often quick to add their two cents to an investigation) but because they don’t want their loved one’s legacy tainted by the stigma of suicide.

Death investigators are well aware of all these issues. They understand how difficult a suicide in the family can be and, oftentimes, are gentle in handling a family member who seems to be in denial about their loved one’s manner of death. The flip side, however, is that they may sometimes be too quick to dismiss a family member’s legitimate and well-founded suspicion of foul play. 

There’s another complication. Just as suicides are on the rise in the United States, so are staged crime scenes. As savvy media consumers track police investigations on Forensic Files or 48 Hours, murderers learn how to disguise a murder to look like a suicide or an accident. So how do investigators tell the difference between a genuine suicide and one that is hiding a murder?  Let’s take at a look at a few cases and how understanding the person who died ultimately helped uncover the person who killed.

Drowned by Sadness or Someone?

If it wasn’t for Uta von Schwedler’s friends and family, her bright legacy as a cancer researcher would have been forever darkened by suicide. In March 2011, she was discovered dead in a bathtub full of water; toxicology reports also indicated a high level of Xanax in her system. There were some odd things at the crime scene–a knife was found underneath her and she had cut marks on her wrist and leg. There was also blood spatter and crumpled bedding in Uta’s bedroom, causing at least one crime scene expert to wonder if there had been some kind of fight. However, given the high level of drugs in her system (which could have made her drowsy and disorganized) and the cuts on her body, she could have done all of this herself. Police initially thought this was a suicide. 

No one who knew Uta believed it. In particular, her oldest son, Pele, refused to accept that his mother killed herself. In fact, he was so determined to prove this that he spent every penny of the money he inherited from his mother to take the case to trial. Part of the investigation included a psychological autopsy, a process in which a forensic psychologist investigates the mental state of the deceased in an effort to assist in determining the manner of death. This often involves looking at social media posts, correspondence (diaries, journals, etc.), medical records, psychiatric records, and numerous interviews with friends, family and work colleagues who were around the deceased person at the time of death.

There was no evidence that Uta was suicidal. Her boyfriend, sister and doctors all said she had no mental health issues and was not taking any antidepressants or ant-anxiety medication (she did not have a prescription for Xanax). In fact, Uta was described as the kind of person who did not like to take prescription medication at all and tended to handle stress through outdoor activities and a healthy diet. Her primary care doctor described her as someone who was “very forthcoming as a patient” and never reported being depressed or suicidal to him. He also noted that during each visit she always spoke of her love and happiness toward her four children. 

Co-workers stated that, just weeks before her death, von Schwedler had made a breakthrough discovery in her research into childhood leukemia. It took 19 months for police and prosecutors to finally determine von Schwedler's death was a homicide rather than a suicide. In 2015, her ex-husband, John Wall, was convicted of her murder.

Foul Play or Wishful Thinking?

Twenty-two-year-old Sheena Morris was found hanging by a blue dog leash from the shower head in a Bradenton Beach motel room on New Year’s Day 2009. According to her fiancé, the couple were at the motel as a getaway to help with Sheena’s depression, but he and Sheena got into an argument shortly after midnight and he left. The medical examiner found no evidence of foul play and ruled the death a suicide. 

However, her mother, Kelly Osborn, insisted that her daughter’s fiancé had killed her. After a three-year public campaign, she successfully convinced the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to reopen the case. Over the next two years, law enforcement officials spent hundreds of hours reviewing crime scene photos, reading the medical examiner’s opinion, and interviewing various witnesses. Part of this reexamination involved a psychological autopsy to evaluate Sheena’s state of mind around the time of her death.

Some interesting things emerged. In spite of Osborn’s public outcry over the suicide ruling, she has apparently told police officers shortly after her daughter’s death that Sheen was bipolar, had experienced a prior drug overdose and suffered “mental issues due to friends committing suicide in the past;” she later denied making these statements. Sheena had attended a funeral of a close friend who died of suicide only a week before her death and one of her close male friends had committed suicide two months prior—by hanging himself with a blue dog leash.

A friend of Sheena’s, Rebecca Anaya, was interviewed in October 2012, and said Sheena confided in her about her depression. Anaya stated that she always tried to help her friend get through her “dark place” but, a few weeks before Sheena’s death, her friend had started giving away her possessions. In fact, not only had she given Rebecca some of her shoes and dresses, she had hidden a $100 check in Anaya’s purse and handed her a key to her apartment “just in case anything ever happens.” Another friend spoke of the traumatic impact of the 2008 suicide of Sheena’s ex-boyfriend. Both friends described Sheena’s mother as a source of significant stress for Sheena as she constantly “inserted herself into” or “meddled in” her daughter’s life. The conclusion of the second investigation were consistent with the first; Sheena Morris died by suicide. 

The Bottom Line

With suicides and staged crime scenes both on the rise, it is important for law enforcement professionals to be savvy in teasing out signs of genuine suicide versus those that point to foul play. Obviously, the crime scene is the primary ground on which law enforcement professionals begin their determination; in both of the cases above, there were facts that were inconsistent with suicide in the first case (possible signs of a struggle, no prescription for Xanax, no alibi for ex-husband, blood in various parts of the house) and homicide in the second (no signs of a struggle or clean up, police officers were able to track the fiancé’s phone to back up his story).

However, when a cause of death remains undetermined after a crime scene is processed and the medical examiner is done, a psychological autopsy can help tip the scales of justice in the right direction.