What Is Considered a Suspicious Death?

The basic definition of “suspicious death” is a death that is unexpected and its circumstances are legally or medically unexplained. Different types of investigations are undertaken in the aftermath of a suspicious death to attempt to reach a firm conclusion as to what happened. Different types of professionals might be involved in such an investigation, including:

  • Coroners
  • Law enforcement personnel
  • Doctors and other medical specialists

Contexts in Which a Death Might Be Deemed Suspicious

There are certain situations in which death is thought to have occurred that give rise to questions and suspicions. In other words, in certain contexts, different types of deaths might be considered suspicious. These contexts include:

  • Unexpected death during medical care
  • Accident
  • Suicide
  • Death arising from suspected criminal activity
  • Unattended death or undiscovered death

A possible accidental death is used for a moment to explain how context (or circumstances) can render a death suspicious. Assume for the sake of explanation that a middle-aged woman was found dead, at the bottom of a staircase. In addition, when investigators arrived at the scene, there was a banana peel at the top of the steps. At first blush, this certainly would register as an accidental death.

However, assume for a moment that while investigators are at the scene a neighbor comes over to the deceased woman’s home. The neighbor reports that he saw someone “scurrying away from the house” at the same time the woman is thought to have died. With this bit of information, what was thought to be an accident ends up in the suspicious category, at least for a bit.

Following this hypothetical case further, the investigators do some footwork and learn that the man seen “scurrying” from the deceased woman’s house turned out to be a letter carrier on his routine rounds. With this verified information, the case moves yet again from one category to another. In this instance, the case shuffles from being suspicious back to the accident category.

On the other hand, assume that the person quickly departing the house was the deceased woman’s ex-husband. He is brought in for questioning and confesses to killing the woman. In such a situation, the case would move from a suspicious classification to one arising from criminal activity.

Classifications Into Which a Suspicious Death May Ultimately Be Assigned

After investigation of one type or another (or of multiple types) a suspicious death will end in one of the following classifications:

  • Natural
  • Accidental
  • Intentional/Criminal
  • Undetermined

Addressing an Unattended Death

One of the most troubling of situations is what oftentimes is called an unattended death. An unattended death is one in which a person dies without a witness and whose remains are not discovered for a more prolonged period of time. Days, weeks, or months might pass from the time of death to the discovery of the remains. An unattended death is also referred to as an undiscovered death.

Depending on the circumstances at the scene of an unattended death – including the state of the remains – the death itself might be immediately classified as suspicious. Additional investigation will be necessary to attempt to ascertain the cause and manner of death.

The cause of death is the illness or injury that resulted in a person passing away. Manner of death involves a determination of whether the death was natural or unnatural. These two determinations must be made in order to ascertain how and why an individual whose remains were not immediately discovered died.

Some Deaths Remained Undetermined – and Suspicious

Despite the best efforts of a coroner and law enforcement investigators, there are situations in which a suspicious death will ultimately be classified as undetermined. History is replete with examples of famous women and men who died under suspicious circumstances and whose exact cause or manner of death (or both) were never absolutely determined. This includes more than a few California celebrities, like a model, actress, and television personality Anna Nicole Smith.

The coroner was able to determine that the cause of Smith’s death was a drug overdose. With that confirmed, investigators have not been able to determine the manner of death. Specifically, the question of whether Smith died from an accidental overdose, suicide, or was improperly provided the drugs by a third party has never been answered. Thus, Anna Nicole Smith’s death is in the undetermined category and remains a suspicious death.

When a death remains suspicious, a death certificate nevertheless does the issue. The cause of death will be listed as undetermined on a death certificate in that type of situation. If the suspicious nature of death leans towards the possibility of criminality, law enforcement may continue an investigation for a period of time, ultimately placing the matter into what oftentimes is called a “cold case file.” If a cause of death ultimately is ascertained, a death certificate will be amended to reflect that determination.