Complete decapitation has been sporadically reported in the forensic literature and cases of suicidal, accidental, homicidal, and postmortem beheading are described. Suicide by decapitation is a relatively rare occurrence, accounting for <1% of suicides.1–4 Also unintentional decapitation is possible in suicide cases, for example after hanging.5,6 Accidental decapitation may also occur, for example, in cases of train pedestrian fatalities,7 industrial accidents, and unusual injuries during road accidents.8,9 Even rarer appears to be homicidal decapitation. In most cases of decapitation, the differentiation between the modes of death might be difficult to some extent, particularly in cases where essential investigative elements, like the decedent's head and the weapon, are unavailable.10
We present a case of homicide by decapitation without any further mutilation of the victim, where only the combination of autopsy results, histologic findings, and technical reconstruction allowed us to identify with certainty the mode of death as a vital decapitation.
A Romanian man phoned a friend confessing to him that he had murdered his Italian girlfriend, then left her body in the countryside in southern Italy. The police found the lifeless body of a white woman under a bridge in the place indicated by the Romanian man. The body was tidily dressed and was found lying on the ground in a supine position, with the upper torso completely wrapped in a blood-soaked jacket; the body was completely decapitated. Numerous locks of hair and shards of the scalp were scattered all around the body, abundantly stained with dried blood. On the ground beneath the body there was only a large amount of blood. Notwithstanding the careful examination of the scene where the body was discovered and the adjacent countryside, neither the severed head nor the weapon were found; only a metal bar, 66 cm in length and 2 cm in diameter, was recovered nearby the body with some blood spots on the surface (Fig. 1). A complete autopsy was performed 24 hours after the discovery of the body.
The body was that of a young adult white woman, the body length (measured from heel to jugular notch) was 132 cm. The body was covered with soil and dried blood, the fingernails were dirty with soil. The head was completely severed from the trunk. The severance line passed 3 cm above the jugular notch and the margins of the wound were sharp and clean. All the deep structures including the vertebral column were disconnected between C7 and T1, where the intervertebral disc was completely dissected. On the upper surface of the first thoracic vertebra, there were no incisions, while the spinous process was avulsed at the base and 2 incisions were evident in the left face of the vertebral body, just beside the superior costal facet. The neck wound showed several fine parallel fissures clean–cut along the margins of the lacerated skin. Numerous superficial linear wounds of varying lengths and many excoriation zones with soft tissue bleeding underneath were present on the cutis adjacent to the neck lesion. The trachea, cervical vessels, spinal cord and dura mater, muscles and nerves were severed with clean-cut margins (Fig. 2). No other external signs were detected in the remaining body parts. In particular, no band-like skin abrasion zones were seen on the arms and legs, suggesting that she had not been tied up. The internal examination showed massive blood aspiration in the trachea and the bronchial system, and pallor of internal organs. No other remarkable findings were detected. Toxicological analysis were negative.
Samples were collected from all organs, as well as the wound margins. Sections were stained with hematoxylin and eosin or by other specific stains (eg, Weigert elastic, Movat pentachrome). All specimens from the wound margins showed a lack of epithelium and massive hemorrhages in the subcutaneous tissue. The muscles underneath showed a massive infiltration of erythrocytes between the fibers. In the tracheal wall, a massive infiltration of erythrocytes was observed between the collagen, elastic, and deep muscular fibers. In the esophageal wall, hemorrhages of the inner layers were present. The lungs showed areas of atelectasis, alveolar edema, and massive blood aspiration.
Two months after the discovery of the body, a farmer found the skeletal remains of a human head at the back of his home, about 700 m away from the place of the body discovery. On macroscopic examination, no fractures were visible on the skull. DNA analysis was successful in demonstrating a match between the victim's body and the skeletal remains.
The metal bar discovered at the death scene was excluded as being the weapon because of the morphologic gross features of the severance line in the neck which led us to strongly believe that the head had been cut off with a sharp instrument. Moving from this assumption, we proceeded to a technical reconstruction through a careful examination of the skin wound lesions and the skeletal part of the victim's neck, and a subsequent match with the weapon allegedly used to decapitate the woman. The presence of many sharp-angled skin ends and small superficial cut wounds, adjacent to the wound margins was suggestive of infliction by a saw. To verify this hypothesis we took into account all those small incisions on the cutis adjacent to the wound margin, considering those showing evenness. We identified, in this way, 4 groups of lesions near the left margin of the wound, called respectively L1, L2, L3, and L4, and 3 further groups at the back, called L5, L6, and L7. Two measurements were performed on each pair of lesions: d1 represented the distance between the top of 2 adjacent lesions, while d2 was the distance between the bottom. The mean value of d1 and d2 measured on L1 through L4 was 6.4 mm, and the mean value measured on L5 through L7 was 6.9 mm (Fig. 3). Besides the morphology of the wound margin, we also took into consideration the end of the disconnected vertebral column. The cut had been conducted along the intervertebral disc between the seventh cervical vertebra and the first thoracic one. The intervertebral disc exhibited numerous grooves. On the upper surface of the first thoracic vertebra, there were no incisions, while the spinous process was avulsed at the base, and 2 incisions, called L8, were evident in the left face of the vertebral body, just beside the superior costal facet. The lengths of these 2 incisions were compared with those of the cutaneous lesions, allowing to verify that they were all compatible with the same weapon. The fact that the lesions all had the same length, and those belonging to the same group showed the same distance between each other, led us to hypothesize that the lesions were compatible with a weapon with constant tooth pitches, like a 4 TPI (teeth per inch) saw-blade, probably, a hand saw because such tiny lesions and well defined cuts are not easily produced by a quickly moving saw blade.
After an extensive search, a handsaw was located in a storage basement near the Romanian man's apartment. The surface was apparently clean but a careful examination showed tiny brownish stains. The DNA analysis performed on the brownish spots was successful in demonstrating a match with the victim's blood.
The convergence of autopsy results and histologic data led us to conclude that the neck lesion was vital and the cause of death was attributed to homicidal decapitation. Massive blood aspiration, soft tissue hemorrhage surrounding the lesions and pallor of the inner organs as signs of bleeding out, were present, indicating that the injuries were vital. The fact that there were no signs of ligatures on the arms and legs and the negative toxicological analysis led us to hypothesize that the man rendered the woman unconscious by hitting her with the metal bar and then severed her head with a sharp weapon.
Decapitation as homicidal manner of death is relatively rare.10 This manner of death has been used for centuries for execution all over the world, and today is used in some countries as the death penalty. In recent years, homicidal beheadings have also been registered in homicides perpetrated by satanic sects, serial killers, or even in hostage killings.11 However, decapitation is not a common homicidal modality, because it necessitate a particular condition of the victim, who has to be defenseless, but also it needs specific weapons, secluded places, and a long time to be performed. Decapitation may be inflicted as postmortem mutilation, due to the murderer's wish to make identification of the victim difficult (defensive mutilation) or as an act of outrage on the victim (aggressive mutilation).10 Occasionally, it might be difficult for the forensic pathologist to ascertain the exact cause of death in cases of decapitation and distinguish a vital decapitation from a postmortem mutilation of the body.12 The combination of death scene findings and autopsy results will in most decapitations allow to distinguish between homicidal and other modes of death.13 Postmortem decapitation or vital complete decapitation and the presence of additional injuries (vital or postmortem infliction) as signs of aggressive or offensive mutilation, respectively, in conjunction with disposal of body parts in different locations indicative of defensive mutilation will make it relatively easy to identify the mode of death as homicide.10
In our case, the question as to whether the victim was alive or dead at the time of decapitation remained the central problem. The findings of massive blood aspiration in the airways, pallor of the inner organs, and extravasated blood in the soft parts of the severance plane were interpreted as vital signs.5,10 Information obtained from routine histologic samples was not of paramount importance. The technical reconstruction of the alleged weapon allowed the identification and the discovery of the hand saw used by the murderer to decapitate the victim. This study is based on an observation of cutaneous lesions, by means of digitalization which permits the extraction of geometrical features.14 The fact that all the lesions had the same length, and those belonging to the same group showed the same distance between each other, led us to hypothesize that the lesions were compatible with a weapon with constant tooth pitches, like a 4 TPI (teeth per inch) saw-blade, probably, a hand saw because such tiny lesions and well defined cuts are not easily produced by a quickly moving saw blade. Further comparison with the surface of the suspected weapon allowed that this attribution was correct.
The reported case illustrates an uncommon homicidal method by sole and complete decapitation where careful forensic investigation and collaboration between the forensic pathologist and other investigators was successful in resolving the case.15
The authors thank the engineers, Dr. Laura Vannuccini and Dr. Fabio Nigi, for their essential contribution to the technical reconstruction of the weapon.
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