The investigator was finishing up the crime scene investigation and was planning on responding to the murder-suicide suspect's home to notify his family of the death. It was one of those boyfriend/girlfriend love affairs gone bad. The victim was a young, early 20's African-American female who was shot to death in her bedroom by her African-American boyfriend. She was going to terminate their relationship and he had reacted with rage, producing a handgun, shooting her three times and then turning the gun on himself.
While at the crime scene, the investigator interviewed two homicide detectives who provided her with background information obtained during their interviews with the woman's family prior to whisking them off to the police department for further interrogation. The investigator identified the male suspect at the scene by his driver's license photograph and obtained a home address for him. She planned to go to his house and attempt a death notification and asked the two detectives if they would accompany her. The detectives agreed to follow her to the suspect's residence, located in a low income, high crime area, and standby while she made the notification and returned personal property she had removed from the body prior to transporting it to the county morgue.
The drive to the suspect's home was short, only a few city blocks from the crime scene. The detectives parked their unmarked unit several houses down the street, away from their target house. The investigator drove an all-white vehicle, identified with the decal of the ME's office on each door and the words "In Emergency, Call 9-1-1" on the rear fenders of each side. There were emergency vehicle lights located in the rear window that allowed negotiating heavy traffic when responding to crime scenes. It was clearly a government vehicle and would have immediately identified the driver as a county official.
The house was located mid-block and had a black fence and gate blocking entry from the sidewalk. The gate gave entry to a small dirt-covered front yard leading to the main door located in the middle of the single story frame house. Street lights located along the traffic laden thoroughfare gave little light to the residential area. The dimness cast an ominous cover over the evening and seemed to set the mood for the pending death notification.
A knock on the door produced a middle-aged African-American woman who glared at the petite, pretty blond woman in the company of two large, Caucasian males. "What is it?" she asked, in a tone that did not sound friendly. The investigator introduced herself as a representative of the Medical Examiner's office and the two males as police detectives. She confirmed that this was the home of the suspect and that his father, the next of kin was home. "What's happened?" asked the woman. The investigator asked if they could step inside and the woman stepped back to allow them to enter. They entered the small living room and she immediately saw the man standing near the back of a dimly lit room. He was tall, thin and appeared middle-aged. The woman pointed to the male and said he was the suspect's father. Again she asked what this was all about. They suspected that their son had gotten himself in some kind of trouble. The father was standing approximately 8 or10 feet away from the investigator and never spoke. He had a glare that said "get the hell out of my house." The two detectives remained standing behind the investigator near the front door, which remained slightly ajar. As the investigator began to deliver the news, the step-mother moved to a small kitchen adjacent to the living room, allowing her to hear the conversation while attending to some food cooking on her stove.
The investigator turned her attention towards the father and said "I'm sorry to tell you, but I have some very bad news for you. Your son shot and killed his girlfriend this evening and then shot and killed himself." For a moment she thought the father didn't hear her. He just stood there with the same expression on his face. Then his face seemed to change into a mask of hate. His eyes narrowed and he began to walk slowly towards the investigator. "I thought to myself, he's going to kill me." she later said. The first thought that came to her was the detectives would shoot him if he killed her. No one except the father moved. She called to the woman in the kitchen, "you'd better come in and see to your man" she said. Before the father approached closer, the woman entered the living room and the father stopped. Time was suspended for a few seconds. The situation was defused for the moment and the threat seemed to be over. The investigator took out her business card and gave it to the woman, letting her know that the remains were being taken to the county morgue for autopsy and would be released to the family once they selected a mortuary. She explained the process could take up to three days but the family should make the necessary arrangements as soon as they felt they could function. The investigator thought it best to take the personal property to the MEs office and release it to the family at a later time when emotions might be calmer.
The response by this family to the investigator's attempted death notification is not unusual. Race, distrust of officials, (including police and other government representatives,) shock of hearing of the death of a family member and other social issues, as described in this article, affect the death notification process. While few responders to the survey reported suffering personal attacks during a notification, many acknowledged concern of the possibility mandated law enforcement officers either make the notification, or accompany the MEs investigators during the attempt.
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