Hanging : Suicide or homicide ?

L Bilashini Chanu *

Hanging is the suspension of body with the help of the ligature tied around neck. Ligature tied in such a manner that the weight of the body or a part of the body weight like head acts as a constricting force.

Hanging can be fatal or non- fatal. Hanging is covered under asphyxial (lack of oxygen) deaths. Types of asphyxial deaths, Hanging can be of different types based on different conditions:

1) On basis of knot position:-

a)Typical : Standard hanging where knot is in the occipital region and head drooping in front.
b) Atypical hanging: Any other type of hanging other than standard hanging.

Atypical Hanging

2) On the basis of suspension:-
a) Complete/Total hanging: Complete Suspension of the body, any part of the body is not touching the ground or any other material. Constriction force in this type of hanging is the weight of the entire body.

b) Incomplete Hanging/Partial: Body is suspended on the ligature with some body parts touching the ground or any material. Constriction force in this type of hanging is only a part of body. This can be in seating, kneeling, standing or even lying positions.

3) In relation to death

a) Ante-mortem Hanging: Hanging before death. It is mostly suicidal. Neck is elongated and stretched, petechial hemorrhages may be seen on face, neck and conjunctiva. Tongue may be protruded and tip between teeth,discharge of urine, feces, semen may be seen. Blood or blood stains may be found in some rare case.

Dribbling or trickling of saliva from the mouth corresponding to the position of the head is the definite sign of ante mortem hanging. Sometimes nasal secretions may also bepresent. These are some of the vital phenomena observed and cannot be produced after death.

In partial hanging, toes may be injured depending on the surface where the deceased is standing. Hyoid bone fractures are rare(internal features: from autopsy). Hyoid bone is fractured in 15-20% cases.

b)Postmortem hanging: Hanging after dead. Mostly homicide. A person may be murdered and the dead body can be suspended to simulate suicide. No signs of ante mortem hanging can be observed.

Other signs like dragging signs, foot/shoe prints,violent signs (antemortem injuries etc.), struggling sings (torn or disturbed clothing, disarranged hairs etc.), undistinguished ligature marks, etc.may be observed. In some rare cases, deceased inflict injuries themselves or arrange suicide to appear to have been murder for motives of revenge, fraud, or for some other reason.

4) On the basis of manner of death :-

a) Suicidal Hanging: Most common form of hanging. One of the most common suicidal methods in the world:reports WHO. (Suicide Almost all the features of antemortem hanging will be observed.Saliva dripping must be examined carefully to correspond with the ligature knot position.

It should be opposite to the position of the knot.Searching for suicide notes, note books, piece of paper, diaries etc. where deceased wrote anything that can be link with the suicide will be useful. Deceased history of depression must also be considered. Absence of violent signs, struggle signs or any other suspicious signs be observed.

A youngest ever recorded case of suicide is at the age of 6 years; SumanthaKuberski ends her life by hanging following an argument with her mother. (10 Heartbreaking Accounts of Child Suicide JAYDON COLIN-MICHAEL NOLAN JULY 3, 2016).

b)Homicidal hanging: Homicidal hangingis singularly rare.Majority of the cases of hanging are suicidal in nature.The doctor conducting the autopsy is expected to come out with some features that either support or reject a particular claim.It is important to consider the circumstantial evidences (

It is difficult for a single assailant to carry out homicidal hanging unless the victim becomes unconscious by injury or drug, or is taken unaware, or is a child or a very weak person.

Homicide/ foul play should be expected when
1) there are violent signs in the body or the scene,
2) Disturbed clothing, hairs etc.
3) Injuries, either offensive or defensive. Scratch marks, nails marks may be present on the neck etc.
4) Presence of saliva dribbling signs on the same side with the ligature knot.
Lynching is the best example of homicidal hanging.

c)Judicial hanging: It is legal execution of death sentence. It is done with long drop method and it is complete hanging type.Some claims thatpersondies due toHangman’s fracture. It is a break in a specific part of bone in the neck, the cervical vertebrae at the level of C2.

However it is not so, person may die due to C2-C3 or C3-C4fracture/dislocation also. Sometimes dislocation ofantlanto-occipital joint may occur.Features of ante mortem hanging will bw present.

d) Accidental hanging: Accidental hanging is very rare and common in lower age groups,in stunts, auto eroticism etc. It is difficult to distinguish its diagnosis from the diagnosis of suicidal and even criminal hanging.

Ligature: Any material used in tying around the neck in hanging e.g. rope, cloth, belt, shirt, shoe lash etc. Ligature can be tied in running noose, fixed noose etc.It can also be tied in one round ormultiple rounds around neck.

It is not an easy task to decide whether a hanging case is suicide or homicide. All the features in the body, evidences in the scene and other circumstantial evidences will surely be helpful in deciding the hanging as suicidal or not.

* L Bilashini Chanu wrote this article for The Sangai Express
The writer is scientific officer, mobile forensic unit Imphal East, Forensic Science Laboratory, Manipur.
This article was webcasted on August 22 2019.

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