N O V 2 0 1 6 D E C Psychological Autopsies as a Tool for Law Enforcement in Death Investigations

David Estep

Contemporary law enforcement agencies today rely upon as well as utilize the behavioral/psychological sciences during the course of criminal investigations that they must perform. One such tool used is a “Psycho- logical Autopsy”. A psychological autopsy (PA) is a technique used in cases of death which reviews and analyzes the psychosocial aspects of a victim’s life and attempts to reconstruct the victim’s psychological state leading up to and at the time of their death. Performing this technique requires an analysis and reconstruction of the decedent’s background, relationships, behaviors, thoughts, coping mechanisms, and emotional state.

one may have thrown the dryer in the water (homicide), the individual could have done it themselves (suicide), the person could have had a heart attack and inadvertently hit the dryer causing it to become active and proceed to fall into the water (natural causes), or sim- ply accidentally dropped the dryer (accident). Bogdan Tasu (2008) states that it has been es- timated that between 5-20% of all deaths can be deemed as equivocal in nature. It can be opined that the general public has many misperceptions pertaining to the law enforcement field, particularly regarding criminal investigations. Contrary to what is portrayed in today’s media, death investiga- tions are usually not as straightforward as portrayed and typically not solvable in an hour’s time due to the painstaking process that must be utilized when the mode of death is not immediately clear and/or known and which requires the usage of specialized techniques and practices by investigators. One such technique that can be utilized and which is the focal point of this article is that of the “Psychological Autopsy” (PA). Psychological Autopsy: An Overview According to Brent Turvey (2008), a psychological autopsy aka “Equivocal Death Analysis” (EDA) can be defined as “A tech- nique that entails reviewing the psychosocial aspects of a victim’s life and is an extension of victimology (knowledge about a victim) that reconstructs the deceased’s psychological state leading up to and at the time of their death”. Behaviors, thoughts, emotions, and relation- ships of the deceased individual are examined. In short form, a PA is a retrospective analy continued on page 26

I t is the intent of this article to discuss the methodology by which this technique is per- formed. During the course of this article, various concepts related to psychological autopsies will be discussed and which will include… equivocal death profiling, exposure analysis (victim expo- sure vs. blame), and lifestyle and situational ex- posure on the part of the victim which may have resulted in their demise. Also, to be discussed will be the sources of information which can assist in performing a PA. The relationship be- tween offender and victim as it pertains to what brought them together will also be looked upon. Suggestions will also be provided on how those performing a PA should approach the technique. Criminal investigations can be likened to a jigsaw puzzle that is waiting to be solved… some pieces are obvious while others are elusive and require discovery. It is the job of criminal inves- tigators to locate all of the pieces and then to fit them together in order to solve the crime and

then to present the resulting case to prosecutors who will then take the case to trial and hopefully obtain a successful prosecution. One type of “puzzle” that can be perplex- ing to investigators are death investigations, par- ticularly those that are deemed to be equivocal in nature. Knoll (2008) defines equivocal deaths as “Situations in which the manner of death (i.e. accidental, natural causes, suicide, and homicide) is uncertain or not immediately clear”. It is neces- sary to clarify the distinction between “cause of death” and “mode of death”. Bernstein (2011) defines the cause of death as what actually caused the death of an individual (i.e. asphyxiation due to strangulation), whereas mode of death involves four categories… accidental, natural causes, sui- cide, and homicide. An example of mode of death can be that of an individual in a bath tub which contains a hair dryer. The cause of death is apparent (electrocution), however, the mode of death may not be so discernible in that some-


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