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American Journal of Forensic Medicine & Pathology:
doi: 10.1097/PAF.0000000000000056
Case Reports

Dying Transfixing His Own Heart: A Rare Case of Suicide by Stabbing

Pentone, Alessandra MD; Innamorato, Liliana MD; Introna, Francesco MD, PhD

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From the Interdisciplinary Department of Medicine (DIM), University of Bari, School of Forensic Medicine, Policlinico, Bari, Italy.

Manuscript received May 22, 2013; accepted August 25, 2013.

The authors report no conflicts of interest.

Reprints: Alessandra Pentone, MD, Interdisciplinary Department of Medicine (DIM), University of Bari, School of Forensic Medicine, Policlinico, Piazza Giulio Cesare, 11, 70124 Bari, Italy. E-mail: alesspent@hotmail.com.

Supplemental digital contents are available for this article. Direct URL citations appear in the printed text and are provided in the HTML and PDF versions of this article on the journal’s Web site ( www.amjforensicmedicine.com).

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Abstract

A 22-year-old man was found dead in his room, lying on his bed, with a kitchen knife embedded in his thorax. The external examination revealed only 1 deep incised horizontal wound in the third left intercostal space beside the sternum. There were no hesitation marks or defense injuries. On both flexor sides of the wrists, the forearms, and the arms and on the right and the left side of the neck, there were several old transversal cut scars. At the autopsy, once the single-edged knife was removed, and after a median sternotomy, the penetration depth of the stab wound revealed an incision of the left pleura, the pericardium, and the transfixed heart, from the anterior to the posterior side, ending on the seventh thoracic vertebra. Toxicological screening resulted as negative. Death occurred as a result of hemorrhagic shock after deep myocardial injuries. A psychiatric history of paranoid schizophrenia; the old scars, which were marks of previous attempted suicides; and the position of the weapon suggested that it was a suicide caused by a single strong stab wound in the cardiac region. This unusual manner of self-stabbing with a single stab to the heart without hesitation wounds was important to exclude other causes of death.

Self-stabbing is an uncommon method of suicide.1 The left part of the chest (where popular knowledge believes the heart to be) represents 1 of the elected sites of self-inflicted wounds.1,2 Among several cases of a knife penetrating the heart described in the literature,3–7 not all are fatal.8–12 In fact, despite the accessibility of the site of the stab to the victim’s hands,13 the force needed to penetrate the chest is the result of many factors such as, for example, the sharpness of the knife, the alignment of cleavage lines of the skin, and the angle of penetration of the weapon.14 The aim of the forensic pathologist was to describe the possible fatality dynamic, without excluding homicidal or accidental causes a priori.15 External examination, autopsy, toxicological screenings, the deceased person’s medical history, findings at the crime scene, and the evaluation of the stabbing implement13 are all important parts of a mosaic ready only after a comprehensive and close examination done by a specialist with a skeptical approach.15,16

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MATERIALS AND METHODS

A 22-year-old man was found dead in his room, sitting and partially lying on his blood-drenched bed (Fig. 1). He was dressed only in black underwear, his slippers being just beside his feet. A kitchen knife was embedded in his thorax, horizontally located in the left anterior chest wall (Fig. 2). The single-edged knife had a 16-cm blade (9 cm inside the chest), a maximum width of 4 cm, and a grip 13-cm long (Fig. 3). The knife laceration splashed an interesting pattern of blood onto the surface of the abdomen and the left lower limb all the way to the floor. A huge blood stain was on the bed sheet near the left part of the corpse. A knife case was near the left thigh, whereas a mobile telephone was hidden under the same limb. The victim’s mother, who lived with him in the same flat, saw her son for the last time the night before, after dinner (approximately 11:30 pm). The next day, she called him for lunch at 3 pm and, not receiving an answer, opened the door of his room and found him lying on the bed. This man had a history of paranoid schizophrenia with previous suicide attempts. He was still under pharmacological treatment.

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RESULTS

At the crime scene, rigor mortis was strongly present in the corpse, such as fixed livor mortis in the soles and the posterior parts of the body, compatibly with the corpse position on the bed. The postmortem external examination revealed only 1 horizontal incised wound 4-cm long on the third left intercostal space, just beside the sternum. There were no other lesions, defensive wounds, or hesitation marks. A bruise was found on the right hand’s thenar. On both flexor sides of the wrists, the forearms, and the arms and on the right and the left side of the neck, several old transversal cut scars were found, likely to be the result of previous suicide attempts. At the autopsy, once the weapon was removed and given to the police for fingerprint analysis and after a median sternotomy, a depth penetration of the stab channel (Fig. 4) revealed the cut of the skin and subcutaneous layers and, going through the third left intercostal space, the infiltration of the pectoral muscles. After the laceration of the left pleura and of the anterior wall of the pericardium was observed, in the pericardial sac, 100 mL of blood was found and collected for analysis, and the 3.7-cm–deep lesion of the anterior side of the heart became visible (Figs. 5 and 6) This lesion penetrated the left ventricle, the septum, and part of the right ventricle (Fig. 7). The stab channel (12-cm long), going through the myocardium, reached the posterior wall of the heart, where a 0.9-cm lesion in the left ventricle was found and continued with the incision of the posterior wall of the pericardium, ending on the seventh thoracic vertebra. In the left pleural cavity, 300 mL of blood was found, whereas the left lung was deflated. There were no particular toxicological findings. Death occurred not immediately, but after minutes, because of a hemorrhagic shock after deep myocardial injuries. A psychiatric history of paranoid schizophrenia; the old scars; marks of previous attempted suicides, and, in particular, the position, the inclination, and the stab channel of the weapon revealed, beyond doubt, that it was a suicide committed by the right-handed man through a single strong stab. This unusual manner of self-stabbing was of paramount importance to exclude other causes of death.

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DISCUSSION

Suicide is a frequent cause of death all over the world.17 Death by self-stabbing is quite uncommon in Western countries.18 Mostly young men19,20 and persons with a psychiatric history21 choose this manner of suicide.22 In the case described, we have a 22-year-old man with a history of paranoid schizophrenia, but the medical anamnesis could not influence us with a suicide hypothesis, excluding homicide or even accident, before all the forensic examinations are completed.15,16 The presence of fatal sharp injuries necessarily entails a discrimination between homicide and suicide.1 The presence of several self-inflicted stabs and hesitation marks and the absence of clothing are the classic criteria required for a self-inflicted suicide.1 In our case, we have 1 single incision, no hesitation marks, and the exposition of the stabbing site. The old cut scars on the wrists, the forearms, the arms, and the neck are likely to be signs of previous attempted suicides. According to the position, the number, the shape, the size, and the major axis of the wounds,1,23 it is possible to get more information to understand the causes of death. First of all, the accessibility of the left part of the chest to the victim’s hand and the corresponding thenar’s right hand bruising. The horizontal axis of the single incision wound could, moreover, explain the way the weapon was held. The knife was in the palm of the right hand with the elbow bent at 90 degrees to the body, in agreement with the angle of penetration of the blade14 producing a self-inflicted stab. The absence of foreign biological trails particularly on the corpse and the lack of defense or scuffle injuries support the suicide hypothesis. Toxicological screening resulted as negative, not adding any element to our investigation. In light of all this, we can confirm the unusual case of a single self-stabbing suicide of a man penetrating his own heart.

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REFERENCES

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Keywords:

self-stabbing; transfixed heart; paranoid schizophrenia; suicide

Copyright © 2013 by Lippincott Williams & Wilkins

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