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Pathologic Features of Suicidal Deaths Caused by Explosives

Tsokos, M. M.D.; Türk, E. E. M.D.; Madea, B. M.D.; Koops, E. M.D.; Longauer, F. M.D.; Szabo, M. M.D.; Huckenbeck, W. M.D.; Gabriel, P. M.D.; Barz, J. M.D.

The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology: March 2003 - Volume 24 - Issue 1 - p 55-63
doi: 10.1097/01.PAF.0000052752.18930.44

Suicidal explosions that lack a terrorist background are only rarely encountered in the field of forensic pathology. The investigation of explosion-related fatalities can be a substantial challenge in medicolegal casework. Determining whether the manner of death is suicide, homicide, or accident in such cases can present an especially difficult task to the forensic pathologist. This study considers the pathologic features of suicidal deaths caused by explosives without a terrorist background. The modus operandi of the decedents reflected familiarity and proficiency, or at least a degree of specialized knowledge, with the construction and use of explosive devices. All explosions were set off in confined spaces. The injury patterns consisted of a combination of primary blast injuries (e.g. decapitation, traumatic amputation of limbs, gross lacerations of the body surface, blast injuries of gas-containing and hollow organs), secondary blast injuries (e.g. splinter-induced penetrating trauma), tertiary blast injuries (e.g. abrasions and contusions), and burn injuries (mostly of the flash type). The previously described symmetric distribution pattern of injuries in suicidal explosions was apparent only to a certain degree in the present series. Our observation of superficially sharp-edged wound margins with bridging in the depths of the lesion in blast-induced lacerations of the skin should deserve further attention in forthcoming cases of explosion-related fatalities because this finding is a diagnostic possibility that may support the theory of an explosion-related fatality under special circumstances, e.g. when the body has been dumped away from the place of death. Because a terrorist attack may be initially suspected in each case of suicide involving explosives, the importance of a joint inquiry based on expertise from police investigators, bomb experts, and forensic pathologists is evident.

From the Institute of Legal Medicine, University of Hamburg M.T., E.E.T., E.K.) Institute of Legal Medicine, University of Bonn (B.M.), Institute of Legal Medicine, University of Düsseldorf (W.H., P.G., J.B.), Germany, and Institute of Legal Medicine, Pavol-Josef-Šafárik University, Košice, Slovak Republic (F.L., M.S.).

Manuscript received August 28, 2002; accepted October 12, 2002.

Address correspondence and reprint requests to Dr. M. Tsokos, Institute of Legal Medicine, University of Hamburg, Butenfeld 34, 22529 Hamburg, Germany; e-mail:

© 2003 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.