A woman is found dead, hanging by a ligature in her closet, and discovered by her husband, who appears to be broken and grieving. You cut her down and confirm there is no pulse. By all accounts, the scene looks like a suicide. You call it as such and call the coroner. Right?
Now consider that the man (who found his wife hanging) had a documented history of domestic violence against his now deceased wife. Want to ask more questions? Would you be looking for more witnesses or evidence of foul play? Would you secure the scene and call in investigators? Would you go so far as to suggest possible murder? Or is it going too far?
In their article, “The Perfect Murder: An Exploratory Study of Staged Murder Scenes and Concealed Femicide,” researchers Yifat Bitton and Hava Dayan take us through some of the variables that point to staged suicide scenes.  These variables, when present, give us reasonable cause to consider protecting scenes, like the one above, for more thorough examination. The authors provide interesting details on this topic:
- The most common victim-offender relationship involving the staging of a murder scene is an intimate partner relationship.
- The most staged murder scenes involve the killing of an intimate partner.
Summarizing the data, Bitton and Dayan point to six predictive factors that, when present, indicate irregularities:
- An untimely death, as the deceased was apparently in good health.
- Death by suicide.
- Evidence that one of the partners wanted to end the relationship.
- Previous domestic violence from the deceased’s partner.
- The deceased was found dead in his home.
- The deceased was found dead by their current or former partner.
In her 2020 Psychology Today article, Joni E Johnston recalls Psy.D. us that when someone calls 911 and reports a suicide, “it’s easy to take it at face value. No matter how much an officer is trained to treat sudden and unexpected death as a homicide until proven otherwise, we are all influenced by what we first learn about an event.
“When the officers arrive on the scene, not only do they find what at first looks like a real suicide, they have to deal with the seemingly shocked and devastated person who has just discovered their loved one hanging from a rope or dead from a shotgun blast .It can be difficult—and seem unnecessarily harsh—to treat the situation as a crime scene and the loved one as a suspect.On top of this, if the person who finds the body is the actual killer (which is often but not always the case), they have a great opportunity to plant further seeds of suicide in the officers’ minds.” 
Joni points to Meg Purk’s suffocation death in 1985, which was ruled a suicide at the time. But in 2015, after the case was re-examined, a jury convicted Meg’s husband of her murder. 
Alliance for Hope International has been investigating these types of cases for years. They have a team of experts dedicated to re-investigating suspicious domestic violence-related suicides. Most of these cases involve death by suffocation. Take, for example, the case of Stacy Feldman, which was featured on Dateline.  In March 2015, Stacy’s husband, Robert, called 911 and reported finding Stacy unresponsive in the shower. She was pronounced dead at the scene. In June 2015, Robert was paid $750,000 from a life insurance policy on Stacy.
It was only in 2017 when Dr. Bill Smock – part of the review team for the Alliance and an expert on strangulation – reviewed Stacy’s case and various photographs. He testified that Stacy died due to asphyxia and/or suffocation and that her injuries were the result of an assault, including blunt force trauma, strangulation, and suffocation. In April 2022, after deliberating for less than three hours, Robert was convicted of first degree murder. You can be sure that the Alliance has many more examples.
In reviewing the literature and as a result of their work in this area, the Alliance added four factors to the six above by Bitton and Dayan that may predict violence-related suicide scenes in the home:
- A previous history of domestic violence that includes strangulation/suffocation.
- The deceased’s partner was the last person to see her/him alive.
- The surviving partner was in control of the crime scene.
- The body had been moved or the scene/evidence had been altered in some way.
When responding to a suicidal call for service, take the time to check for a history of domestic violence and review the predictive factors above. If you want to learn more, consider enrolling in training courses conducted by the Training Institute on Stranulation Prevention.
When cases like this arise, pause and consider securing the scene and calling in investigators. Most importantly, be safe out there.