The taking of human life is a tragedy. The circumstances under which it happens make a big difference in how we view that tragedy. When a person takes his or her own life, it is suicide. If someone intentionally and maliciously kills someone else, we call that murder.
Unless, of course, the person who attempts to commit suicide succeeds in taking his life but ultimately commits murder.
Confused? Hold on as we delve into the twists, turns, and murky circumstances surrounding the death/suicide/murder of Ronald Opus.
Dr. Don Harper Mills, then president of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences presented the curious case of Ronald Opus at a gathering of the organization. What began as an open-and-closed case of suicide quickly developed into a complex chronicle of forensic and legal plot twists.
The body of Ronald Opus was examined after Opus threw himself off the roof of a 10-story building. The cause of death, despite the fall, appeared to be a shotgun blast to the head. A note was found near the man’s body that stated he was despondent and planned on taking his own life by leaping to his death.
The examiner’s initial assessment was that Ronald Opus had committed suicide. The gunshot wound was a weird plot twist, however. Under ordinary circumstances, when a person is in the act of committing suicide but ends up being killed by an agent outside of his or her control, it’s still considered suicide. If, for example, a person steps onto a busy highway with the intent to kill himself and gets hit by a speeding car, the driver of that car will not be found guilty of taking the suicidal person’s life. Since Opus was in the act of committing suicide when he leaped from the roof, the fact that someone shot him on the way down did not change the fact that Opus’s death was a suicide.
The Net Effect
The thing that caused the medical examiner to reconsider his judgment about suicide wasn’t the gunshot wound. It was a net. Further investigation revealed that a net had been installed on the 8th floor to protect window washers. Because of the presence of the net, Opus would have survived the fall. He may not have known that the net was there, but that doesn’t change the fact that jumping off the roof of the building was insufficient to take his life. This meant that the gunshot wound — specifically, the shooter of the gun — needed to be investigated. The shooter could be guilty of murder.
A Quarrel, A Gun, Really Bad Aim, and Even Worse Timing
The identity of the shooter turned out to be an elderly man on the 9th floor. He was arguing with his wife. In the heat of the moment, he grabbed his shotgun and pointed it at her. To his horror, he accidentally pulled the trigger. To his relief, his advanced age and frailty meant that the gun jolted to the left, causing the bullet to pass harmlessly past his wife and out the window. To his renewed horror, the bullet went out the window at the exact moment Ronald Opus was falling past the 9th floor, striking him in the head.
Although the elderly man did not intend to hurt Ronald Opus, that did not absolve him of responsibility. The law says that when a person engages in intentional or reckless conduct, he or she is responsible for any harm that results from that conduct, even if the harm occurs to someone whom the actor did not intend to hurt. Pointing a gun at a person in a threatening manner is inherently a big no-no. You don’t point guns at people because they might go off. That’s exactly what happened, so the elderly man immediately came under suspicion of murder.
A Loaded Question
What seemed like a pretty solid case against the shooter soon fell into question. Both the shooter and his wife insisted that they thought the gun was not loaded. The husband had made it a practice during their long marriage to emphasize his displeasure by snatching up the gun and pointing it at his wife.
Why the wife put up with this kind of behavior is a bit puzzling. Nonetheless, the evidence strongly supported their insistence that they both believed the gun was harmless. Neither had any suspicion that it was loaded. Quite the contrary, they were firmly of the opinion that no harm could come from it.
This fact changed everything. An otherwise reckless act ceases to be reckless when all of the available facts point toward it being safe. Under almost any other set of circumstances, pointing a gun at someone would be irresponsible behavior. When a long-established pattern of behavior reinforced everyone’s belief that the action was safe, the element of recklessness disappears.
Imagine, for example, two actors appeared in a theatrical production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. In the scene where Caesar is stabbed to death, one actor uses a prop knife that is spring loaded so the knife disappears into the handle when thrust against another person. As long as everyone honestly believes the knife is harmless, there’s nothing at all criminal or irresponsible about using it to act out the scene. If by accident or design, someone switched the prop knife with a real one without the knowledge of either of the actors, the use of the real knife might harm or kill the one who is stabbed. It would not be an intentional or reckless act by the one wielding the knife, however.
The medical examiner, after studying the statements of the quarreling couple, concluded that the shooter was not a murderer. It appeared that Opus’s death was a bizarre accident.
The Loaded Answer
The case could not be closed, however, because the shooting may not have been entirely an accident. Someone loaded the gun. That person’s identity and the reason for doing so make a difference in the outcome of this case.
In this case, the medical examiner learned that the son of the man who pulled the trigger was seen loading the gun several weeks before. This happened shortly after his mother (the shooter’s wife) cut off all financial assistance to him.
This new development took things in a new direction. It appeared that the man who loaded the gun did so in hopes that the next time his father got mad and pointed the gun, it would go off. In other words, the man who loaded the gun was trying to kill his mother.
The fact that the man who loaded the gun did not pull the trigger does not absolve him from murder. He was the one who put things in motion and designed a series of events that were intended to kill his mother.
That the mother was not hurt does not change the fact that the one who loaded the gun is a murderer. When a person sets out to kill someone and fails, but in the attempt kills someone else, he or she is still guilty of homicide.
Clearly, Ronald Opus’s death could no longer be considered a suicide. It was a murder. All that remained was to apprehend and charge the man who loaded the gun.
One Last Plot Twist
Identifying the murderer was easy enough. All the authorities had to do was ask the elderly couple the name of their son. That’s where things got even more complicated. Their son’s name was Ronald Opus.
Yes, that’s the same Ronald Opus who was killed by a gunshot wound to the head that was inflicted as he fell from the top of a tall building. The man who had hoped to cause his mother’s death by loading his father’s gun failed at killing her. He also failed in his attempt to commit suicide. He did, however, succeed — although unintentionally — in murdering himself.
And That is the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth—ish
Dr. Mills presented this bizarre case of Ronald Opus to the American Academy of Forensic Sciences in 1987. The strange set of facts started making the rounds. With the advent of the internet, it spread globally. Quite uncharacteristic of internet stories, the fact pattern remained essentially unchanged throughout its distribution. There was, however, one vital piece of information that was omitted. The remarkable event never happened.
Dr. Mills presented Ronald Opus’s death as an illustration of how a few small facts can greatly alter the legal consequences of an investigation. When someone got their hands on a copy of Dr. Mills’ presentation, they posted it on an internet message board and neglected to mention that it was a story that was created for illustrative purposes only.
Since then, the American Academy of Forensic Sciences has been fielding questions about it on a regular basis. Dr. Mills said he received countless calls about the story from, “librarians, journalists, law students, even law professors wanting to incorporate it into textbooks.” He received more than 400 calls about the story in 1997 alone — an average of more than one call per day.
Unlike Ronald Opus, the story refuses to die. It is still possible to find his tragic comedy of errors recounted as fact on many internet sites. To be fair, it is a really good story. It does illustrate important points about criminal investigations and the law. Unfortunately, when the story is recounted as an actual event, the teller misses the most important point of the story: details matter.
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