Five Reasons Why Elliott Smith’s Death Is Probably Not A Suicide:

Written by | January 2, 2015 0:08 | 8 responses

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Elliott Smith

Here are five reasons why Elliott Smith’s death is probably not a suicide:

1. The method: Most stabbing deaths are homicides (1). According to many studies, suicide by sharp force injuries account for less than 2% of all suicides, and according to an article by William A. Cox, M.D. Forensic Pathologist and Neuropathologist: ‘a fundamental approach you may want to use is to consider all deaths as the result of incised and or stab wounds as homicides until proven otherwise’ (2). Among 700 cutting and stabbing fatalities studied in the article (and keep in mind that this also include death by cutting not stabbing) 80% were due to homicide, 18% to suicide and 2 % to accident (2). In another study (5), self-stabbings represented only 10% of all deaths from cutting and piercing instruments. Thus, suicides by stabbing are unusual, and ‘one of the most common sites for self-inflicted incised wounds is the neck’ (2) not the chest.

2. The circumstances of the death: Elliott and his girlfriend were arguing the day of his death: They had been fighting all morning long and the neighbors did hear the violent fight since the two were slamming doors and screaming. She said she locked herself in the bathroom because she wanted to isolate herself, used to Elliott’s melodramatic threats – he allegedly said he wanted to kill himself (3) – or because she was sick of his paranoia (4). She ignored his begging, as he was allegedly asking her to come out, apologizing, and knocking on the door. In Gil Reyes’ documentary and during the Q&A following the screening, she said she stayed there no longer than 5 or 10 minutes. When she exited she found Elliott with the knife in his chest. How many people commit suicide in the middle of a fight or even shortly after of a fight? And in comparison, how many people are killed following a fight due to domestic violence? Plus this happened in the middle of the day (the 911 call was made at 12:18 pm), whereas ‘most of the self-inflicted stabbings (69%) occurred at night or in the early hours of the morning’ (5), and very few self-stabbings are actually witnessed ‘in only 2 (7%) cases’ in this same study (5).

3. The forensics of the wounds: Elliott had two deep wounds in the chest. Although most suicides by stabbing have a single wound (6), and isolated cut wounds are predominantly observed in suicides (7), everything is possible at this level as the quantity of cuts is generally not a good predictive factor relative to the manner of death; however, another study notes only 3 out of 17 cases of suicide with more than 3 wounds (8). Furthermore, the thorax is the most targeted region for homicide victims and the upper limbs for suicides (7) and (8). In the case of suicide, self-inflicted cut wounds are usually found to the neck or wrists (1), (2) and (9). The direction of the stabbing is also sometimes an indication: in Elliott’s case, both stabs were ‘slightly downward’, although the term ‘vertical’ is not used in the autopsy, vertical orientation of any chest wounds strongly suggest homicide (7) and (8).  Still according to the autopsy report, if stab wound #1 ‘entered the chest cavity through the 5th intercostal space’, stab wound #2 ‘perforated the left edge of the sternum’. According to a large study including 118 sharp force fatalities, there is ‘a higher likelihood of a homicide if bone or cartilage wounds were present and a higher likelihood of a suicide if these wounds were absent’ (7). In this same study the authors wrote that ‘in order to explain the lower frequency of bone or cartilage wounds in suicides, one can easily imagine that suicide victims avoided solid anatomical structures, such as ribs and the sternum. In contrast, the frequency of bone or cartilage wounds in homicides may be high because assailants ignore the presence of these solid structures’. Thus, the perforated sternum in Elliott’s case could indicate homicide. Also it seems that the severity of the wounds is another indicator of the cause of death as ‘wounds caused by assailants to their victims were more severe than those inflicted by the victims of suicides to themselves’ (7). On the autopsy report, the estimated depth of penetration of Elliott’s wound #2 is between 5 and 7 inch (12.7 -17.8 cm) which is quite severe. Last point, the stabbing occurred through the clothes which could indicate homicide: In most homicides, the wounds are made through clothing whereas wounds under clothing indicate suicide (1). In most suicides with chest or abdominal wounds, the chosen area is exposed (6) and clothing damage is absent (6) (9). Thus clothing damage by sharp force is interpreted as an indication of homicide (10).

4. The lack of hesitation wounds and the possible defense wounds: Often when a person stabs itself, hesitation wounds (superficial incised wounds) are made before the fatal deep wound. They indicate indecision before the final act. Elliott didn’t have any hesitation wounds around the large stab wounds in his chest and his neck and wrists were intact. Schultz wrote that Scheinin suggested that hesitation marks could have been obliterated by the stabbing itself, but she never said this to me when I interviewed her and I have never found anything related to this in literature. According to many studies, hesitation marks are a strong indicator of suicide, and ‘are believed to be the most useful indication in distinguishing suicide from homicide’ (9). According to many investigations, they are present in most cases of suicides (>70%) from sharp weapon injury (6) (9), (10), (11) (12) (13) (14) and (15). On the other hand, the small cuts on his left palm and right upper arm could be interpreted as possible defense wounds, although they could have been done by mishandling the knife. They were very small, but they were certainly not due to self-injury. And yes Elliott was right handed, which makes the cut on his right arm a bit weird. Obviously, defense wounds are a strong indication of homicide (2), were detected in 61% of the cases in a large study (15) and they are most frequently found on hands, arms and forearms (15).

5. The removal of the knife: Despite the fact that she holds an MA in Clinical Art Therapy from Loyola Marymount University, has 15 years of experience working as an art therapist for a number of non-profit, community mental health organizations, his girlfriend removed the knife from the wound when she saw him, still standing. After an inquiry about the training of art therapist, the assistant Director of Human Resources of Five Acres, where she has worked, told me: ‘All of our direct care staff, including our therapists, is trained in CPR and First Aid.’ She had been a licensed therapist since 1995, and has worked with damaged children. A colleague of hers confirmed me she should have known better ‘I cannot stress this enough: Anyone who takes a Basic First Aid class, even the people who sleep through it, are scared straight from any idea of removing an impaled object of any kind. It creates a second trauma and increases the bleed. You leave it in and wrap it to staunch the bleeding. This is particularly stressed in training for clinicians who work with children!!!’

All these points are facts, not opinions, and I know that statistics don’t always explain everything, but suicide in Elliott’s case would make him an incredibly odd statistic. After going through all this, it is difficult to understand why many people still believe it was a suicide.

 

 

Update: Since the time I wrote this article, I talked to a forensic expert who is specialist of stabbing and the elements which can help make the distinction between suicide and homicide, as he is one of the authors of the article ‘Homicidal and suicidal sharp force fatalities: Autopsy parameters in relation to the manner of death’ published in ‘Forensic Science International'(16). This is what he had to say after the lecture the autopsy report:

‘I carefully read the autopsy report and give you as requested my opinion on this case. Interpretation of the autopsy findings are difficult, as resuscitation attempts and thoracic surgery added iatrogenic injuries. Concerning the manner of death, some findings are more in favor of homicide :

– Sharp wound in the thorax associated with underlying bone injury.

– Clothing defects in the chest area where are located the two lethal sharp force wounds.

– Absence of hesitation wounds in the vicinity of the two lethal thoracic injuries.

– Two incised wounds on the right arm and left hand, raising the possibility of defensive wounds.

– The axis of the two lethal wounds is near the vertical.

Other elements may point to suicide:

– All the sharp wounds found may be self-inflicted.

– No clothing defect in front of the incised wound of the right arm.

So, finally I am sharing the opinion of the forensic pathologist who carried out the autopsy. Manner of death is undetermined, although autopsy findings are more in favor of homicide.’

Regarding his second point for suicide (‘No clothing defect in front of the incised wound of the right arm’), I told him that Elliott was wearing a short-sleeve shirt when he died, which basically blows up this point: ‘Concerning the clothing defect, I did not take into account a short-sleeve shirt worn by the victim at the time of death. In case of suicide, we can expect no clothing defect in front of the skin incised wound, but this finding is not constant. No clothing defect of a long-sleeve shirt would be more relevant, [to support suicide]’ he added.

 

(1) ‘Criminal investigation’ by Christine Hess Orthmann, Kären Hess
(2) ‘Sharp edged and Pointed Instrument Injuries’ by William A. Cox, M.D. Forensic Pathologist/Neuropathologist (2011)
(3) http://blogcritics.org/smiths-girlfriend-speaks/
(4) ‘Torment Saint: The Life of Elliott Smith’, By William Todd Schultz
(5) ‘Suicide by Self-stabbing’ by R.D. Start, C.M. Milroy and M.A. Green, (1992) Forensic Science International 56
(6) ‘Suicide by self-stabbing’ by Start RD, Milroy CM, Green MA. Forensic Sci. Int. (1992) 56:89–94.
(7) ‘Homicidal and suicidal sharp force fatalities: Autopsy parameters in relation to the manner of death’ by Christophe Brunel, Christophe Fermanian, Michel Durigon, Geoffroy Lorin de la Grandmaison, Forensic Science International 198 (2010) 150–154
(8) ‘Homicide-Suicide by Stabbing Study Over 10 Years in the Toulouse Region’ by V. Scolan, N. Telmon, A. Blanc, J. P. Allery, D. Charlet, and D. Rouge, Am. J. Forensic Med Pathol (2004) 25: 33–36
(9) ‘Retrospective study on suicidal cases by sharp force injuries’ by Setsuko Fukube, Takahito Hayashi MD, Yuko Ishida PhD, Hitoshi Kamon, Mariko Kawaguchi, Akihiko Kimura PhD, Toshikazu Kondo PhD, MD, Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine 15 (2008) 163–167
(10) ‘Patterns in sharp force fatalities – a comprehensive forensic medical study: part 2. suicidal sharp force injury in the Stockholm area’ by Karlsson T, Ormstad K, Rajs J., 1972–1984. J Forensic Sci (1988) 33: 448–61.
(11) ‘Sharp injury fatalities in New York City’ by Gill JR, Catanese C. J Forensic Sci (2002) 47: 554–7.
(12) ‘Suicides by sharp force: typical and atypical features’ by Karger B, Niemeyer J, Brinkmann B.. Int. J Legal Med (2000) 113:259–62.
(13) ‘Tentative injuries in self stabbing’, Vanezis P, West IE.. Forensic Sci. Int. (1983) 21:65–70.
(14) ‘Criteria for homicide and suicide on victims of extended suicide due to sharp force’ by Dettling A, Althaus L, Haffner HT. injury. Forensic Sci Int. (2003) 134:142–6.
(15) ‘Suicidal and homicidal sharp force injury: a 5-year retrospective comparative study of hesitation marks and defense wounds’ by Stephanie Racette, Celia Kremer, Anne Desjarlais, Anny Sauvageau, Forensic Sci Med Pathol (2008) 4:221–227

(16) ‘Homicidal and suicidal sharp force fatalities: Autopsy parameters in relation to the manner of death’ by Christophe Brunel, Christophe Fermanian, Michel Durigon, Geoffroy Lorin de la Grandmaison, Forensic Science International (2010) 198: 150–154

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8 Responses to “Five Reasons Why Elliott Smith’s Death Is Probably Not A Suicide:”

  1. patrick

    if people really cared about the circumstances surrounding smith’s death, they could help raise awareness or help people in similar situations that have been through abuse, addiction, depression, and suicidal ideation, but instead they’d rather contribute to the frankly misogynystic notion of the psycho bitch yoko being the undoing of the artist (who is always portrayed as being without fault, which helps no one). for fuck’s sake, this blog post is about a man who once threw himself off a cliff (in his own words), who sang about being good to go, flying to fall away from you all, over the Hawthorne bridge. if you care so much about Elliott smith, do other people like him a favor and focus on them, the ones who had a charlie to beat them up week after week, the ones that learned how to kill their cares with some pitch burning on a shining sheet, the ones that are another (yes, another) suicide waiting to happen. because even IF he was killed, it would be a much more worthwhile endeavor.

    Reply
    • Emma Nation

      The point of this post is to present the facts and remind people that if the facts point to murder, and away from suicide, the facts should be examined further as to who is responsible for the crime. The facts point away from suicide; therefore, murder is more likely. The girlfriend was present. Why do you accuse this writer of misogyny? This is a discussion of facts, not social orientation.

      Reply
    • Elliotts Girl 0816

      he didn’t threw himself of the cliff. he ran into the dark and didn’t know the street was ending, where it was and fell. it was refuted a bunch of times by a lot of people, as well as Elliott himself, that that was not a suicide attempt. \ though it seems like people love the idea that he threw himself of a cliff to die in that tragic way.

      Reply
  2. Imma Gonna Beat(les) [re]Drum

    In 2/4.

    Geez, Patrick. No one who believes there are a lot of unanswered questions surrounding Elliott’s demise is ignoring the fact that many of his fans find solace in his music because they identify with what they perceive as shared personal experience.

    But, your comment underscores why listeners might want to rethink their interpretations of Elliott’s “own” words.

    Elliott Smith’s legacy stands as a tribute to his talent as a story teller – not as evidence of his alleged “suicide”.

    Further complicating matters: NEWS FLASH! ELLIOTT NEVER JUMPED OFF OF A CLIFF…no matter what the press articles said OR the ideas you and others continue to glean from his lyrics.

    Yes – the guy was injured in a fall; there were witnesses. HOWEVER – there was no cliff in sight. And, in no way was it a suicide attempt. Sure – that didn’t stop the proverbial grapevine known as “the press” from turning it into a big fish story. [For the record – there wasn’t a physical “grapevine” or an actual “big fish” involved – EVER.]

    I am going to assume that this “leap” is also the “one possible suicide attempt” mentioned in the official autopsy report as recorded in the investigator’s narrative as part of the only witness’ statement (because, Patrick, NO ONE ELSE can name a “suicide attempt” in Elliott Smith’s history – not a REAL ONE anyway).

    If you are referring to Elliott’s words as being proof of that particular fall being a thwarted suicide attempt, your words only prove the power of shallow, lazy reporting and the general unfamiliarity many people have/had with the way in which Elliott Smith often communicated or related to reporters…not to mention how frequently his seemingly candid and “confessional style” lyrics appear familiar on the surface, yet hold myriad depth of context for those who are interested in wading through less shallow waters. [Yes. Elliott Smith wore a snorkel and hip boots.]

    Again – no matter. The listener’s frame of reference ultimately determines his or her own interpretations. Analogies and metaphor are regularly missed in favor of face value consideration and one’s confirmatory bias.

    More importantly – to counter your other misguided assertion : ( …

    People who make valid observations about the missing information surrounding Elliott’s death are not lacking in empathy for anyone struggling with addiction and depression. They are (as they state “up-front” and “in your face”) simply lacking information about the circumstances surrounding his death and would like to see a more thorough official investigation take place.

    There are valid reasons for efforts to be made to find answers. In no way does asking questions subtract from creating awareness about substance abuse or depression.

    Abuse, addiction and depression – and suicide ideation – don’t INEVITABLY end with a suicide swan dive off of a cliff (which, I repeat: in Elliott’s case, never happened). Many people – artists included – live through and with their personal scourges everyday (with little fanfare) until the day they die of natural causes. But, because it is so common, it doesn’t make for interesting press.

    If one focuses on the counterintuitive, redemptive quality of Elliott’s words, one might get a different picture of the man. Ironically, it seems that the majority of people who would benefit most from recognizing Elliott’s innate strength seem the least interested in that “version” of him.

    AND – curiously – you use the term “psycho-bitch yoko” rather handily for a feminist. : / I am presuming you mean Yoko Ono. Lennon’s widow is an ambitious, creatively eccentric, savvy business person who never refrained from freely and consistently providing the police with information regarding the circumstances that transpired the night of her (lawfully wedded) husband’s death. As we know, a perpetrator was arrested and charged with his murder. [BTW – John Lennon suffered a “downfall”? News to me. I thought he was just simply living his complicated life and Ono was an extension of it.] Yes – I get that you are probably referring to how others view Ono.

    But, MY POINT IS: Anyone can mix it up with metaphors and metonyms and (Ono!) get it — wrong.

    Reply
  3. jjv jj

    the fact she left to take a shower is a little curious. she says it was before he stabbed himself, but that sounds like what most would do after a crime. but who knows.

    Reply
  4. Loren

    She definitely killed him, the girlfriend Jennifer. Why didn’t they arrest her immediately? Probably because she has a Masters degree in psychology and can easily manipulate. Prints on the knife, “oh yeah I just pulled it out” What the fuck, seriously?! That’s utterly ridiculous and if true negligent homicide should be the charge at least as you don’t move an object once a person is impaled. Any “intelligent” person knows this. It is scary that she’s still free and moreover allowed around children.

    Reply
  5. Vincent

    Having any history of mental health issues makes someone an easy target for a framed suicide. There’s something to be taken from this regardless of the truth of the event in question simply by being aware of that fact. One more thing to keep in mind when thinking about someone you care about and the company they keep.

    Reply

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