Complete decapitation by a self-constructed guillotine in a burned body - complex suicide or postmortem burning?

Abstract

We report a suicide case of complete decapitation using a self-constructed guillotine. A 45-year-old man, whose body was severely burned, was found dead. The head was completely separated from the middle level of the neck, and a sharp blade with a steel frame was placed between the head and neck. The severance plane passed between the C4 and C5 vertebrae. Vital reactions such as hemorrhage could not be confirmed at the decapitated skin edge because the body was severely burned. Both common carotid arteries were sharply transected. Subendocardial hemorrhage was detected in the left ventricle. Only a little blood, but no soot, was detected in the respiratory tract, including the trachea and bilateral bronchi. Subarachnoid hemorrhage was noted at the edge of the cervical spinal cord. The saturation level of CO-Hb was 5.7% in the left cardiac blood, 5.9% in the right cardiac blood, and 5.8% in the peripheral blood from the femoral vein. Cervical transection was diagnosed as the cause of death. We believe that he was unintentionally burned by spread fire from an automobile after decapitation by a self-constructed guillotine.

Introduction

It is difficult to determine the cause of death in the case of a burned body [1]. Moreover, it is also essential to estimate when and how the injuries occurred, antemortem or postmortem, and whether the injuries were caused due to fire or not [2]. Decapitation is the separation of the head from the body; thus, it is a lethal injury. Suicidal decapitation is very rarely noted; however, a few cases of suicidal decapitation using a handmade guillotine have been reported [3,4,5,6]. Here, we report a rare case of suicidal decapitation using a self-constructed guillotine in which the victim’s body was severely burned.

Case report

At approximately 5:50 am, a car had burned on the premises of an automotive factory, and firefighters found a severely burned body in the prone position beside the car while they were working to extinguish the fire (Fig. 1). The head of the cadaver was completely separated from the body. There was a steel frame (250 cm in length) between the head and the body, and four reinforcements were noted in the frame. The frame was fixed under the right rear wheel of the car by an aluminum sill, and a sharp steel blade (42 cm in length) was attached to the tip of the frame (Fig. 1). A charred wooden block was close to the tip, and a plastic box containing kerosene and a molten elastic cord was found between the body and car (Fig. 1). Kerosene was also detected on the passenger seat of the car and the wooden block. A gas lighter was found under the driver’s seat of the burned car. A medico-legal autopsy was performed on the following day to clarify the cause of death.

Fig. 1
figure1

a Scene where a burned body was found. b Complete decapitation was noted in the burned body

Autopsy findings

The height and weight of the deceased was estimated to be approximately 175 cm and 52.0 kg (decapitated head 4 kg), respectively (Fig. 2a). Although 1st- and 2nd-degree burns were observed on the center of the chest and abdomen, the skin tissues of the other parts were seriously charred (Fig. 2a and b). The head was completely severed from the neck, and the severance plane passed between the C4 and C5 vertebrae. There were no injuries, including skull fracture. The severance plane was severely burned, and vital reactions such as hemorrhage could not be confirmed at the decapitated skin edge because of the severity of the burns (Fig. 2c and d). Both common carotid arteries were sharply transected (Fig. 2e). Subarachnoid hemorrhage was detected only on the cervical spinal cord side of the body (Fig. 2f). Internally, mild thermo-coagulation was noted in the brain (1120 g); however, neither hemorrhage nor contusion was detected. The heart weighed 340 g, and subendocardial hemorrhage was detected in the left ventricle. Approximately 70 ml of slightly coagulated cardiac blood was noted. Both lungs (left 500 g, right 350 g) were slightly edematous. Only a little blood, but no soot, was detected in the respiratory tract, including the trachea and bilateral bronchi (Fig. 2f). Apparent lesions were not noted in the other organs.

Fig. 2
figure2

Autopsy findings. a The cadaver was severely burned. b The 1st and 2nd-degree burns were observed in the chest and upper abdomen. c Severance planes of the head side. d Severance planes of the trunk side. e. Complete transection of both common carotid arteries. f Complete transection of cervical spinal cord. Subarachnoid hemorrhage was noted at the edge. g Blood aspiration in the air passage

Toxicological analyses

Analysis of alcohol and other volatile substances analysis

Using intracardiac blood, peripheral blood from the femoral vein, and urine samples, volatile substances, including alcohol, were analyzed according to headspace gas chromatograph with a flame ionization detector. Nothing was detected from each sample.

Drug screening

A urine sample was screened using Triage™ Drug of Abuse (Biosite Diagnostics Inc., San Diego, CA). Positive bands for the corresponding drugs were not observed.

Carbon monoxide-hemoglobin (CO-Hb)

The saturation level of CO-Hb was determined as 5.7% in the left cardiac blood, 5.9% in the right cardiac blood, and 5.8% in peripheral blood from the femoral vein, respectively.

Discussion

Forensic pathologists are always required to determine whether a body was exposed to an antemortem or a postmortem fire. However, it is extremely difficult to determine the cause of death in a burned body through only macroscopic observation. Even postmortem computed tomography (PMCT) could only provide a few clues for determining the cause of death and vitality signs [7]. Burn injury is classified into three stages, and erythema and blistering (the 1st degree) and destruction of skin and necrosis (the 2nd degree) are vital reactions [8]. However, 3rd degree burns such as the destruction of deeper tissues below the skin can occur even after death. Moreover, intense fire can cause extensive burning of the limbs and even head. In forensic autopsy, the high levels of CO-Hb and soot deposits in the air passage practically suggest the antemortem exposure to fire.

Decapitation is closely related to high-energy injuries, and such a case as this is unusual in forensic autopsies [9]. The manner of death due to decapitation is classified into three types, namely accident, suicide, and homicide [10]. Most accidental decapitations are encountered in train–pedestrian fatalities, due to severance of the head by the wheels [9, 10]. Additionally, car drivers/passengers and motorcyclists experience decapitation by blunt force in traffic accidents [9, 10]. Morild and colleagues reported a case where the head of a young woman passenger in a car was pushed out the window while turning a curve, and her neck was hit by a road sign pole, eventually resulting in decapitation [11].

In most homicidal cases, sharp instruments or chain saws are often used, and decapitation, including dismemberment, is postmortem because it is necessary that the victim is defenseless [12]. On the contrary, suicidal decapitation is executed in various ways—namely, by using a guillotine, tractor loader, log splitter, and metal ligature; it may also be vehicle-assisted or caused by exposing oneself in the path of a train [3,4,5,6, 10, 11, 13, 14]. Moreover, hanging with jumping from a height sometimes causes decapitation involuntary [11]. In the present case, a self-constructed guillotine was employed. To the best of our knowledge, four similar suicidal cases using a self-made guillotine have been reported [3, 5, 15, 16].

In the case of a home-made guillotine, some efforts have been made to voluntarily drop the guillotine. Figure 3 shows the reconstruction of the guillotine instrument in the scene investigation. The steel frame with a blade on the tip was vertically set up and fixed with elastic cords to connect to the automobile. Moreover, a gas lighter was found in the automobile. Thus, it was considered that the elastic cord released the guillotine pole when the car burned, eventually resulting in the pole falling so that the blade struck the victim’s neck. According to the police investigation, several colleagues of the victim reported that he sharpened two steel plates with a grinding machine at their factory.

Fig. 3
figure3

The reconstruction of the self-made guillotine by police staff

Forensic pathologists are required to determine whether decapitation has occurred antemortem or postmortem. Tsokos and colleagues reported that blood aspiration and subendocardial hemorrhages seemed to be vital reactions in decapitation [14]. In this case, the decapitated and burned body was identified as a 45-year-old male employee of an automobile factory. Based on autopsy findings, we found that vital reactions such as soot in air passage was absent and that CO-Hb levels were insignificant for diagnosing the death due to fire. On the contrary, we confirmed that the cervical vertebrae were cut sharply, indicating that his head was decapitated. Moreover, we evaluated that the presence of intratracheal blood was a vital reaction of antemortem aspiration, and that subarachnoid hemorrhage at the cervical spinal cord was one of the vital reactions. Thus, we eventually diagnosed the cause of his death as cervical transection.

Both blood aspiration and subendocardial hemorrhages were found in our case. In addition, there was subarachnoid hemorrhage at the cervical spinal cord side of the body, indicating antemortem decapitation. The saturation level of CO-Hb was low, and only a little blood, but no soot, was detected in the respiratory tract. Thus, he was decapitated before his death, and decapitation was diagnosed as the cause of death. We evaluated the 1st- and the 2nd-degree burns on the chest and abdomen as supravital reaction, but not vital reactions [8].

In forensic practice, complex suicide refers to the use of more than one method, and it is categorized as planned (or primary) and unplanned (or secondary) [17]. In planned suicide, the victim intentionally makes preparations for all methods before execution. In contrast, in unplanned suicide, the second or the third methods will be attempted when the initial method is deemed inadequate to end life [18, 19]. Various combinations of method are reported in the available literature, such as self-strangulation and plaster ingestion, shooting oneself using a gun and intentional vehicular collision, use of cutting and blank cartridge gunshot, burning and shooting oneself using a gun, and self-strangulation and nicotine intoxication [20,21,22,23,24]. We speculated that this case was a complex suicide involving a combination of self-immolation and use of a guillotine. However, in this case, kerosene was detected in the plastic container, passenger seat of the car, and wooden block but not in the cadaver’s blood and skin samples. These observations imply that the victim did not attempt self-immolation. Collectively, we concluded that after decapitation, his body was unintentionally burned in the fire that originated from the automobile.

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Correspondence to Toshikazu Kondo.

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Ishigami, A., Hata, S., Ishida, Y. et al. Complete decapitation by a self-constructed guillotine in a burned body - complex suicide or postmortem burning?. Int J Legal Med (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00414-020-02323-y

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Keywords

  • Decapitation
  • Guillotine
  • Burned body
  • Complex suicide
  • Supravital reaction