Questions or Answers?: An anecdote about murder

Questions are important. I will go so far as to say many times questions are more important than answers. Answers, especially incorrect answers, mean we’ve exhausted our will to engage in inquiry. In my life I’ve suffered a tragedy that has an answer, even though in the back of my mind I still have questions. This post examines that tragedy to argue that, although answers are simple and help us move on, answers are not always correct.

[Note: This post deals with a death in the family. I’m not looking for, nor do I want, comments showing sympathy. In these kinds of situations, 9 years later, an innocent “I’m sorry to hear that” sounds insulting. Please don’t leave those kinds of comments.]

In 2005 my sister was found dead in a shared apartment. The following comes from her full autopsy report and statements from witnesses, the chief medical examiner, the chief of police, and the mayor, all of whom took interest in her case.

My sister was an intravenous drug user for much of her adult life. But after witnessing her drug dealer murder a child with a baseball bat, she realized she needed to change her life. So she quit drugs cold turkey, broke up with her boyfriend, and moved in with my dad, address unlisted. She called her lawyer and began working out her statement to the police department regarding the murder. Three days before she died her boyfriend found her. She told him she couldn’t be a part of that life and was working with the police to put the drug dealer in prison. He beat her up and sent her to the ER with contusions on her face and scalp. There she was released with an undiagnosed bleed in her brain.

On the day she died she moved into the shared apartment. She asked one of her new roommates for heroin, but he had just gotten clean himself and refused to help her find drugs. He noticed her take “two small white pills” and chase it with a 40 oz. Later that night the landlord checked on her. She was watching TV in her room. He left the apartment to buy groceries. He was gone for 30 minutes. During this time the five other roommates witnessed her now-ex-boyfriend, the drug dealer, and an unidentified female enter the apartment, go into her room, and shut the door. There was some commotion, but not enough to warrant roommate intervention. Soon the trio left her room and closed the door behind them. When the landlord came home he discovered her on the floor, unresponsive. She was dead.

The responding officer took statements from everyone, but the arrival of the boyfriend, drug dealer, and woman was not mentioned in the initial police report. When the officer, who knew of her previous drug convictions, heard about the heroin request, he wrote in his report “suspected overdose.” Her body was taken to the medical examiner’s office, where the autopsy revealed no obvious cause of death. The report also noted that the brain bleed would have caused death in days, but it was not sufficient enough to cause death at that point in time. [Note: We don’t know if the brain bleed was caused by the fight with her boyfriend. It might be a coincidence.] The medical examiner agreed with the responding officer and, pending toxicology results, listed her cause of death as “accidental overdose.” This ruling compelled the police to close the case.

My sister, per her wishes, was cremated.

Soon after her ceremony the five eyewitnesses came forward with information about the encounter my sister had moments before her death. They were able to name two people to the police: the boyfriend and the drug dealer. By then the boyfriend was in jail on unrelated charges. In jail he wrote my dad a letter and said, “Everything they said happened that night happened.” He explained how they did it: He and the woman held my sister down while the drug dealer gave her an air embolism, which is not usually fatal, except in cases of long-term intravenous drug use. She died in minutes. They did it to prevent her from telling the police about the little boy being murdered.

When all of this new information came out, I contacted the chief medical examiner and asked for the full autopsy report, including toxicology results. She took one look at the final report and said, “There’s no way your sister died of an overdose. She only had residual drugs in her system. She probably hadn’t taken any narcotics in a week.” (We don’t know what the white pills she took were). She then contacted the police with her new finding. They agreed to reopen the case if the ME’s office did a second autopsy. The only problem was there was no body. My sister had been cremated.

At my mother’s insistence, I pressed the issue with the chief of police, who was running for re-election. I pressed the mayor who had taken a tough-on-crime stance. Both of them agreed to reopen the case, despite there being no body. All this effort, however, was in vain.

Because the re-opened case rested on the boyfriend’s statement, the body was necessary. MEs, if they know to look for it, can detect gaseous embolisms, which would have backed up the boyfriend’s statement. Without the body, however, the statement was meaningless.

In other words, by all accounts I should believe my sister was murdered. There were five eyewitnesses who saw them go into her room, heard a scuffle, and leave just moments before she was found dead. The boyfriend confessed in a letter written to my dad. The chief medical examiner disagrees with the initial autopsy results; she had no drugs in her system. But is that really enough to believe my sister was murdered? Is that enough to convince a jury? The prosecutor’s office didn’t think so. No charges were filed.

In this case it’s easiest to say she was murdered. This is the best answer because it wraps everything up nicely. I even tell people she was murdered because the evidence I do have supports that claim. But I still have lingering questions that can never be answered because her body was cremated prior to a second autopsy. And these questions are sufficient enough to agree with the prosecutor; no charges should be filed. And if they were I would not expect a jury to convict the accused, not without compelling new evidence.

I wrote this anecdote specifically to show that answers, while nice to have and very useful, are not always correct, no matter how important that specific answer is to you. We cannot ignore the other evidence, and we cannot ignore a lack of evidence for the answers we have. It may be emotionally difficult at times, but it’s important to have questions, even when you think you already have the answer. In my case I accept the evidence (that is available) suggests my sister was murdered. But I equally accept that I might be wrong.

About Rayan Zehn

I'm a political scientist.
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