Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Death by Hanging:Suicide or Homicide?

I have a murder by hanging, but I want it to look like a suicide. The murderer ties a rope to the second floor stair railing, puts a noose around the victim’s neck, and tosses her over. Is there a way to confuse the medical examiner?

Most suicidal hangings are from lower heights, and the victim dies from suffocation and lack of blood flow to the brain. The victim typically has a Vee-shaped bruise on the front of the neck. Tiny broken blood vessels can be seen in the eyes and mouth.
If the killer uses a ligature to strangle the victim and then attempts to make it look like a hanging: the medical examiner would find a transverse bruise from the ligature.

If the victim dies from the strangulation, less bruising will occur from the rope. The ME would call this a homicide.

Other trauma that suggests a struggle will cause suspicion about homicide. It would be difficult to subdue a conscious adult, place a noose, and throw the victim over a railing without trauma. Injury from incapacitating the victim—head wound, for example—increases the likelihood of homicide.
The way the knot is tied and secured can give clues as well.

A hanging by the neck with a fall of more than six feet is capable of fracturing the neck. There’s a fair body of evidence on this since hanging is utilized as capital punishment in many countries. Throwing a victim off a second floor balcony is very likely to cause a fracture. Few suicides would choose this method.

Hanging from an intermediate height--such as forcing the victim to stand on a chair and then removing the chair would look like suicide. If the victim is drunk or has taken sedatives, she could be unconscious from this, making it easier to control her. It's not unusual for suicides to takes pills or alcohol.

Questions? Comments?

Kelly has worked in the medical field for over twenty years, mainly at large medical centers. With experience in a variety of settings, chances are Kelly may have seen it. Sometimes truth seems stranger than fiction in medicine, but accurate medicine in fiction is fabulous.
Find her fiction at www.kellywhitley.com.


  1. Also the way the knot was tied, since most people are right-handed and the knot would be as if it had been tied by a left-handed person, unless the murderer ties it from behind the victim. I got this from a Columbo shoelace case...


  2. Thanks, this is exactly what my WIP uses as the method of murder. My victim gets knocked out first so the killer can maneuver him to the second floor balcony. Another clue maybe--no footprint impressions on the desk chair used to wheel him over.

    1. Adding the "no footprints" is a great idea, Nancy.
      It was a fun post to write.
      Cheers, Kelly

  3. I have a question my mothers hanging was considered a suicide and im not sure it was. I was told she did it in her closet with a belt but the way the closet is set up the bar in only 4 foot and she is 5'6". On top of that the bar wouldn't have been able to hold her weight.Then I was told from my grandmother that they told her it was from the ceiling fan which is in fact broke so it would not have held her weight either. I'm not sure how to go about this and my grandmother also told me her bruises were to low on her neck.

    1. Hello, Abigail.
      Was there a postmortem (autopsy)? That would be the best way to find out the actual cause of death and manner of death. It sounds like some of the details may be unclear--closet versus ceiling fan. If there are police reports available that may help explain.
      Hope this helps. Good luck!

  4. My daughter was found hanging in her bathroom on the door by her 12 year old daughter. We know she did not do this but the police say she did. The case is still open. My daughter married a man Feb. 20 and March 27 she is found hanging. There are 3 young women that this man has been with in 7 weeks all found hanging! I need help with this, no one is listening!