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In the story of Ronald Opus, a medical examiner makes a number of observations on an apparent suicide:

On March 23, 1994, a medical examiner viewed the body of Ronald Opus and concluded that he died from a gunshot wound of the head caused by a shotgun. Investigation to that point had revealed that the decedent had jumped from the top of a ten-story building with the intent to commit suicide. (He left a note indicating his despondency.) As he passed the 9th floor on the way down, his life was interrupted by a shotgun blast through a window, killing him instantly. Neither the shooter nor the decedent was aware that a safety net had been erected at the 8th floor level to protect some window washers, and that the decedent would most likely not have been able to complete his intent to commit suicide because of this.

Ordinarily, a person who sets out to commit suicide and ultimately succeeds, even if the mechanism might not be what they intended, is defined as having committed suicide. That he was shot on the way to certain death nine storeys below probably would not change his mode of death from suicide to homicide, but the fact that his suicide intent would not have been achieved under any circumstance caused the medical examiner to feel that he had homicide on his hands.

Further investigation led to the discovery that the room on the 9th floor whence the shotgun blast emanated was occupied by an elderly man and his wife. He was threatening her with the shotgun because of an interspousal spat and became so upset that he could not hold the shotgun straight. Therefore, when he pulled the trigger, he completely missed his wife, and the pellets went through the window, striking the decedent.

When one intends to kill subject A but kills subject B in the attempt, one is guilty of the murder of subject B. The old man was confronted with this conclusion, but both he and his wife were adamant in stating that neither knew that the shotgun was loaded. It was the longtime habit of the old man to threaten his wife with an unloaded shotgun. He had no intent to murder her; therefore, the killing of the decedent appeared then to be accident. That is, the gun had been accidentally loaded.

But further investigation turned up a witness that their son was seen loading the shotgun approximately six weeks prior to the fatal accident. That investigation showed that the mother (the old lady) had cut off her son's financial support, and her son, knowing the propensity of his father to use the shotgun threateningly, loaded the gun with the expectation that the father would shoot his mother. 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, Ronald Opus himself, had become increasingly despondent over the failure of his attempt to get his mother murdered. This led him to jump off the ten-story building on March 23, only to be killed by a shotgun blast through a 9th story window.

The medical examiner closed the case as a suicide.

I feel like this sequence of interpretations both makes sense and doesn't make sense. For example, I'm surprised that in the 4th paragraph, they're talking about murder instead of manslaughter, which seems more appropriate for an accidental killing.

Now, I know that law requires a jurisdiction. Since the original creator of the story worked at the universities of Cincinnati and Southern California, I'm wondering whether the above story, and especially the legal claims and observations the forensic examiner make, hold up under Ohio or California law.

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  • My reading of the 4th paragraph is that it opens with the definition of murder but concludes with "the killing of the decedent appeared then to be accident". The 5th paragraph shows that the son intentionally loaded the gun with the intent to commit murder vicariously. Then came the final twist. – Rock Ape Nov 24 '20 at 11:14
  • I'm fairly certain the elderly man in paragraph 3 has committed some crime, at least against his wife. I'm less clear if a crime was committed by hitting the son instead. Also, there's probably a law against discharging a firearm in that manner in a city. Overall, interesting question, and I can't completely answer it...hopefully someone can, though. – Ryan M Nov 24 '20 at 11:45
  • Okay, but who pays for the broken window? – Hagen von Eitzen Nov 24 '20 at 12:59
  • @RyanM: Yes, the man committed a crime against his wife and yes he committed a crime against his son. Read my explanation for what he did and why it's illegal. – hszmv Nov 24 '20 at 13:56
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No it's not.

This is important because we have an inaccuracy in this paragraph:

When one intends to kill subject A but kills subject B in the attempt, one is guilty of the murder of subject B. The old man was confronted with this conclusion, but both he and his wife were adamant in stating that neither knew that the shotgun was loaded. It was the longtime habit of the old man to threaten his wife with an unloaded shotgun. He had no intent to murder her; therefore, the killing of the decedent appeared then to be accident. That is, the gun had been accidentally loaded.

There's a riddle that many people who are teaching gun safety courses like to ask their class to drive the point home early: "How can you tell if a gun is unloaded? Answer: The Gun is always loaded!" The point here is that one should never, ever treat a gun as if it is unloaded. Always assume that it is loaded and ready to be fired, and will destroy the thing it is pointed at. Because of this, in the United States, the act of pointing a gun at someone in a threatening manner (and without affirmative defense of self-defense) constitutes an assault even if the person pointing the gun knows it's not loaded, inoperable, or not even a real gun. So the husband, by dint of the fact that he pointed a gun that the wife reasonably believed was a work, albeit unloaded, gun at her, had assaulted his spouse (assault need not include physical harm aka Battery but only the threat of physical harm, by most legal definitions.).

In addition, in U.S. common law, there is a provision called "Felony Murder" in all jurisdictions. This legal concept states that if, while in the comission of a felony crime, someone dies, you are guilty of 1st Degree Murder (if the crime is a misdemenor, you are guilty of "Misdemenor Manslaughter/3rd degree murder). This is not something you want to face because you need not prove that you killed the person but that you committed a crime and someone in proximity to this act died (The classic example is a bank robber yells "this is a stick up! Nobod move unless I tell you. Teller, give me all the money in the vault!" and after saying this, a little old lady who was there to deposit her social security check has a fatal heart attack and dies. Even though the robber didn't even point the gun at her, he is now guilty of Felony Murder because she died while he robbed the bank. Doesn't matter if her heart attack was induced by the excitement of the situation or she didn't get proper medical attention because EMS will not enter a hostile situation until the police clear it or that her heart attack had nothing to do with this.). Thus, because the Husband was committing a felonious crime (assault) upon his wife, the fact that the man jumping had the misfortune of being at the wrong place at the wrong time does not matter. The Husband murdered the man with intent because he intended to assault his wife by threatening her with his gun and thus is liable for the legal consequences related to that crime. Intent to committ murder does not factor here.

What's more, at trial this is easy to prove as the investigating officers would be able to testify that the husband and wife both told them at the scene that they believed the gun was unloaded (Stupid but not a crime) when he pointed the gun at her (stupid and a crime). This is not a violation of hearsay as statements against the opposite party's interests are admissable under U.S. rules of evidence. The Husband would not be required to testify as he has a fifth amendment right against self-incrimination and the prosecution could not call the wife under spousal-immunity privilege (unless she waived it), but this is something their attorney would need them to try and refute.

Furthermore, the cornor would likely not rule this a suicide unless he/she learned of the details of the man's death prior to or during the course of the autopsy. There would be trace evidence (glass from the window) or lack of trace evidence (lack of Gun Shot Residue) to lead the cornor to conclude the fatal injury was a gun shot, not a suicide by jump. I'm no doctor, but I'm pretty sure the two injuries look nothing alike.

Additionally, there are cases that would come into play even if somehow the fall (and not the sudden stop) killed our jumper. As a general rule, it's murder if you inflict a fatal injury to what you reasonabley believe to be a dead person that is infact a living person (or if you inflict a seemingly fatal injury to what you reasonably believe to be a living person that is in fact a dead person), so the fact that the jumper was going to die no matter what doesn't mitigate that the death by fall was not what killed him.

Finally, as crazy as it may seem, humans have survived falls from greater heights. There are multiple recorded instances of people who tried to jump from the Golden Gate Bridge (the second most popular suicide spot in the world) and seemingly miraculously lived to tell of the experience. The deck of the Golden Gate bridge is 245 feet from the water's surface, which makes this a fall from 23 stories up, more than double the building height in this scenario. As a general rule, it's a good bet someone jumping from 10 stories (108 feet) will die, it's not a garentee as we have multiple survivors who jumped from 245 feet and lived.

In conclusion, Coronors do not work that way, nor does the law. The only thing saving the man from conviction is a sympathetic jury that finds that it's not illegal to accidentally kill a man who is in the process of committing suicide. Given the facts of this case, I find it hard to get twelve people to sympathize with the man, but hey, stranger things have happened.

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