Colonel James Sabow – Pathological and Physiological Principles of Instantaneous vs. Sudden Death
The body of a Marine Corps officer was discovered lying on a 12 gauge shotgun in the backyard of his home. Naval Investigative Service personnel identified an intraoral wound and immediately informed the base commander and the victim’s family that the death was a suicide. The following day an autopsy was performed and death certificate issued, designating death as suicide. The purpose of this paper is two-fold: to distinguish the difference between instantaneous and sudden death and its application in distinguishing homicide from suicide and, secondly, to propose that the death certificate in any unwitnessed traumatic death should be considered a preliminary document until there is comprehensive evaluation of all evidence. The correct conclusion of death in this case requires understanding of physiologic principles which determine when death is instantaneous as opposed to sudden. If the initial trauma to the officer was the shotgun wound, then death had to have been instantaneous. However, autopsy results, skull x-rays and crime scene evidence demonstrate that death was sudden but not instantaneous. The initial trauma was a fatal blow to the back of the head causing a depressed skull fracture behind the right ear. Therefore, the manner of death was homicide not suicide.