A different form of autopsy in death investigations was brought to the attention of 15 people Friday at the Westside Conference Center of the Mental Health Institute at USF. Forensic psychologist and professor of law at State University of New York Charles Ewing spoke about psychology autopsy and its importance.
“Psychological autopsy is just one piece of the puzzle,” said Ewing.
Used in circumstances where the ruling between a suicide and a homicide is uncertain, psychological autopsies are a means for examining a person’s life leading up until death.
According to crimelibrary.com, this procedure was conceived in 1958 when Chief Los Angeles Medical Examiner Theodore Curphy employed two suicide prevention specialists to help with a large number of drug-related deaths. Together they came up with 16 areas that can be examined in an investigation process.
Today there are 26 separate areas of focus, but psychological autopsies remain controversial.
According to a USF press release, “This clinical assessment method remains shrouded in confusion, largely due to a failure to clearly define the concept and identify generally acceptable methodology for its use.”
In his presentation, Ewing provided overviews of several cases that demonstrated the need for a psychological autopsy.
After declaring a Jamestown, N.Y. Army captain’s death a suicide in March of 1998, U.S. Army investigators inadvertently triggered a public outcry.
“Captain Hess’ family, friends and colleagues said there was no way that he would ever have killed himself,” Ewing said. “They also claimed that people don’t commit suicide by stabbing themselves 26 times.”
On the morning of March 3, Captain Hess went jogging outside his base at Fort Knox, K.Y. One day later, his body was found in a ravine with 26 stab wounds in his chest and neck. No amount of evidence suggested a scuffle ensued. His wallet remained in his pocket, and beside his body laid a Leatherman multitool, which is similar to a Swiss Army knife. As for possible motives, no one on the base had any apparent rationale for killing Hess.
“Nine military pathologists (doctors who specialize in medical diagnosis) concluded that Hess had committed suicide,” Ewing said. “And five civilian pathologists affiliated with the victim’s family said that this case was obviously a homicide … that’s when the Army decided they wanted to have a psychological autopsy done.”
According to an article from practiclehomicide.com, Michael Gelles, chief psychologist for Naval investigative services, submitted his review of the case on February 26, 1999.
“There appears to have been a tragic series of events … that led to a rapid regression and loss of control for Captain Hess,” Gelles said. “His status and role as a military officer and commander was critical to his identity … his image of himself as a leader and commander shattered.”
One possibility for Hess’ source of angst may have originated from a computer-simulated war exercise the day before he died.
“He made mistakes that resulted in the deaths of many soldiers in this exercise,” Ewing said. “He had been harshly criticized for his performance that day, and was reportedly distressed and discouraged.”
The availability of case evidence including the complete investigative file, interviews from dozens of people who had known Captain Hess and a large amount of background information supported Gelles’ view that Hess had committed suicide.
“He subsequently self-inflicted numerous lethal and non-lethal stab wounds using his Leatherman tool to his neck and torso resulting in death, either to relieve his stress or punish himself,” Gelles said.
During the discussion, Ewing and other experts discussed the validity of psychological autopsies.
“There is no consensus within the scientific community of what a psychological autopsy is, let alone who should be doing one and how it should be done,” he said. “They have the potential to do as much harm as they do good.”
Highlighting the irregularity of psychological autopsies, Ewing mentioned a case from 1989 aboard the U.S.S. Iowa.
“During a U.S. Navy training exercise in the Caribbean, one of the 16-inch gun turrets on the Iowa exploded and 47 crew members were killed,” Ewing said.
The Navy sought out the services of the FBI to perform a psychological autopsy on Officer Clayton Hartwig, who had died in the explosion, Ewing said. In their investigation, FBI and Navy agents concluded that Hartwig had intentionally caused the explosion.
In an effort to clear his name, the victim’s family and friends caused a huge uproar that resulted in a hearing.
Part of the hearing involved cross-examinations of the individuals who worked on the psychological autopsy, Ewing said.
After experts disputed their findings, the issue remained unresolved.
In closing, Ewing emphasized the need for continued use of psychological autopsies in investigating serious cases.
“It’s a valuable tool for medical examiners. But we need to use it in a logical and consistent manner.”