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APPLICATION OF PSYCHOLOGICAL AUTOPSY IN INVESTIGATION OF SUICIDAL DEATHS IN INDIA: AN INSIGHT

By

Souvik Dhar, Pursuing Ph.D. in Law from Amity Law School, Noida, AUUP

Introduction

Psychological autopsy is an attempt to reproduce an individual's mental state preceding death. It is also known as retrospective death analysis or suicidal death investigation. In physical postmortem autopsy, it involves opening up of the body. But in the psychological autopsy, it includes opening up of mind. It is a strategy for exploring an individual's demise by reproducing what the individual thought, felt, and did before death, in light of data accumulated from personal archives, police reports, coroner's records, and vis-à-vis interviews with families, companions, and other people who had contact with the individual preceding his death.


A psychological autopsy has been used in several developed countries as an aid of criminal investigation. When there is uncertainty on the mode of death, the investigating authorities go for the psychological autopsy to know the mode of death. Further, it is also used in suicide cases to know the cause of suicide and to find out whether there is any contributing factor behind such suicide. The researcher here wants to find out whether the psychological autopsy can help police authorities in their investigation of suicidal death.


Case Study

Theresa Jackson v. State of Florida

In Theresa Jackson v. State of Florida, daughter of accused committed suicide for which accused was held guilty on basis of the psychological autopsy report. In a psychological autopsy, it was found that the accused and her little girl had an exceptionally turbulent relationship. Even though the accused person was the mother for the person in question, she constrained her little girl into the profession of nude dancing. On that very night, when the victim was engaged with nude dancing for the first time, she returned home and shot herself by pulling the trigger of her mom's .357 Magnum gun into her mouth. A psychological autopsy held that though the victim had committed suicide. The report has also confirmed that the relationship between the victim and accused was the ‘substantial contributing factor’ behind the girl’s suicide. Accused was held guilty of abetment to suicide.


Burari Suicide Case

In the Burari Suicide Case, 11 members of the Bhatia family were discovered dead in north Delhi's Burari on July 1, 2018. It is suspected by the police that the members of the family committed suicide.


The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) conducted a psychological autopsy where it was uncovered that they had died while performing a custom that they believed would assist them in meeting a family member who had passed away long ago. It is essential to focus on what the police investigator said on the psychological autopsy report submitted by CBI. As per the investigator, the psychological autopsy conducted by the CBI is consistent with the police investigation. Hence, according to the police, the psychological autopsy report of the 11 members of the concerned family, has ‘corroborated’ or substantiated the findings of the police. The police investigation was also directed towards the conclusion that all the deaths are accidental. Suicide is where a person has the intention to die. But in this case, there was no intention to die. A psychological autopsy has affirmed the findings of the police.


During the investigation, at first police investigators were confused about the suicidal deaths of 11 members of the family. There was suspicion of poisoning too. The viscera report proved that there was no poisoning. On the other hand, the psychological autopsy proved that they may not have intended to die. This is because they had prepared breakfast for the next morning. This is an indication that they may expect to return to their normal life after performing the ritual. Before psychological autopsy, investigating officers were quite sure that they had committed suicide. But the investigation officers were confused as there were certain missing links. After a psychological autopsy, it was proved that they died while performing a ritual and they had no intention to die. Thus, psychological autopsy helped them to come into a proper conclusion – that it was neither suicide nor homicide, but an accidental death.


Position in India

In India, the utilization of psychological autopsy in a criminal investigation is very negligible. In a specific case, Central Public Information Officer of Central Forensic Science Laboratory, Central Bureau of Investigation, submitted that the procedure relating to psychological autopsy had not yet incorporated in the work procedure manual of the Forensic Psychological Division of CFSL. They have additionally submitted before the court that, in a certain research paper on suicidal death investigation, about eight psychological autopsy examinations have been conducted so far. So it can be said the psychological autopsy has been used in certain suicidal death investigations in India but the process is still in its nascent stage.


Conclusion

From the above two suicide cases, it can be said that psychological autopsy is an extremely supportive analytical apparatus for investigating authorities in exploring suicidal deaths. In a few high profile cases, the police have used psychological autopsy to find out whether there is a contributing factor in suicide. In any sort of equivocal and suicidal deaths, police can take the help of psychological autopsy as a part of a fair investigation. Mentioning the causes of suicide as unknown in a police report is a violation of fair investigation. Hence, it is a violation of fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 20 and 21 of the Indian Constitution as well as the violation of human rights. NCRB report on causes of suicide proves that there was a violation of human right as police failed to ascertain the cause of suicides in the good number of cases. Under Section 45 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, it can come under the purview of Expert opinion too. It can be admissible in the court too if there is corroborating evidence supporting the Expert Opinion as happened in Burari Suicide case. It is quite evident that where the mode of death is not sure, the investigative agency can opt for the psychological autopsy to deduce the chain of events. And also in suicide cases, the cause of suicide can be ascertained with the help of psychological autopsy. So in suicidal death cases or in mysterious death cases which look like suicide, a psychological autopsy can be an effective weapon for the police authorities for proper ascertainment of cause of suicide.


Endnote

Canter, David V. (2000) Psychological autopsies. In: Encyclopedia of Forensic Sciences. Elsevier, London, UK. ISBN 9780122272158.

Introduction

Theresa Jackson v. State of Florida. 553 So.2d 719 (1989).

Burari Suicide Case

Burari Suicide Case

Mr Subhash K M v. CBI. Decision No. CIC/RM/A/2014/004204/SB (2016).