In 2005, a young man was found dead in the garage of his house in Italy. The body lay near the front bumper of a car and was dressed in several layers of clothing. Blood covered the face and alcohol seeped from the mouth. It did not take long to find items inside the house that suggested a mental instability. There was also another body.
Cases like this are among the top reasons I attend the American Academy of Forensic Sciences meetings each year at this time. Not only do I get fresh material for teaching but I also hear about the most unusual situations. They help to keep students – whether undergrads or investigators at seminars – from settling into the comforts of tunnel vision. Each case has its own unique features and some have more than others. This one, published in theJournal of Forensic Science*, involved several medical specialties, anthropology, criminology, and psychology.
The walls in the trash-filled house were covered with writing and drawings, which provided a narrative of the decedent’s thoughts and feelings. One drawing was the head of Christ wearing a thorny crown.
A long passage described the death of a woman on a specific date three years earlier. Her body, this note said, had been placed inside a sealed wardrobe in a room on an upper floor.
Indeed, investigators found a fully dressed, mummified corpse in a sealed closet, arranged in a partial sitting position. There were more writings and a drawing of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream.” Although an ID card identified the man, DNA had to be analyzed for the woman. Comparing this with the male’s DNA indicated that the woman had been his mother.
Because of mummification, special procedures had to be done to establish the woman’s cause of death. To supplement this information, neighbors were interviewed. None had seen any sign of mental illness. The woman’s husband had died in 1997, so she and her son had moved to the house together. He was in his late 20s. They kept to themselves, aside from the son’s regular trips to get the woman’s pension check and prescription.
No traumatic injuries were found on the mummified woman. Toxicology also revealed nothing.
An autopsy on the man turned up no wounds, but the toxicological analysis found alcohol and medications that corresponded with those found in the house. The mechanism of death was acute cardiac failure caused by gastric hemorrhage, which came from an overdose of alcohol and psychotropic drugs.
The case resolution turned on a psychological autopsy and behavioral analysis, specifically interpreting the condition of the living quarters and the writing on the walls. The principal question was: did the son kill the mother or had she died naturally, triggering his suicide?
One wall text was lengthy. It appeared to have been written in grief over the mother’s death and in loving memory of her. “I absolutely couldn’t accept that she wasn’t there any more.” Although the male decedent had been 33 when his mother died, he described his fear of growing up and living on his own. “Hence I decided to stay in this womb.”
He had taken care of the body, choosing clothes, arranging her hair, and making the decision to hide her in the closet – her “shrine” – so he would keep her there but not have to see her decay. This way, nothing would separate them and he could speak to her daily.
The second text listed instructions, which suggested that he expected to die and wanted to ensure that his mother’s remains were found and handled carefully. “My body, if the devil will catch me, will be in the room above the one of my mother.” (It wasn’t.) He mentioned two earlier failed suicide attempts and ended with religious language and the belief that he would see Jesus.
The investigation focused on a “narratological analysis,” with a psychodynamic interpretation. The first wall writing showed the man’s inability to complete the developmental process into adulthood. He was dependent on his mother. Thus, he could not accept her death. He could not care for himself, so his physical surroundings deteriorated.
His subsequent writings showed depression, guilt, indignity and a sense of ruin. He believed that his failed suicides equaled God’s rejection. He had continued to live on his mother’s pension, even after her death. He had also filled her medication prescription, which he used for his suicide. In addition, he described prayer as a rite of exorcism.
Although this man, with his emasculated dependence on his mother and his stunted social abilities, partially fit the criminological profile of matricide by a son with a serious psychological disorder, the team decided otherwise. In the absence of trauma to the mother’s body, the decedent’s behavior and writings supported a finding of natural death for the mother and a suicidal psychic collapse for the son.
Many experts from different disciplines contributed to the investigation, mostly due to scientific curiosity, because even if the mother’s manner of death had been determined a homicide, there was no one to prosecute. Fortunately, many professionals willingly invest their time and expertise to unravel such human mysteries. I’m looking forward to the next AAFS conference.