It’s possible to frighten a person to death, and people have been charged with and convicted of murder for doing so.
The recognition that a person may be guilty of some degree of murder even though no physical injury was inflicted represents a change from early common law that said the cause of death in homicide must be physical, not nervous or emotional.
One of the oldest in my collection of reference articles explains that in the common law era, the means by which fright could kill was beyond the ken of mortals. Human laws were inadequate to judge such cases because “secret things belong to God.”
The nature of the association between fear and death is no longer a divine secret. I have lots of papers that explain the adverse physiological effects of stress on the heart and circulatory system.
For decades before I became a forensic pathologist, medical examiners believed and courts found that the acceleration of a frail person’s death constitutes homicide, that ignorance of a person’s illness is no excuse and that extinguishing “even the least spark” of life is as much a homicide as killing the most vigorous individual.
In the classic scenario, a store clerk with severe heart disease collapses and dies when confronted with a weapon during a holdup. Almost all medical examiners would certify such a death a homicide.
Though medical examiners agree on certification in the classic case, opinions sometimes diverge depending on the perceived intent of the perpetrator and the nature of the frightening event.
One extreme is a death brought on by a menacing, criminal act – the store clerk scenario. At the other end of the spectrum is the man who collapses and dies when his 5-year-old great-grandson jumps out of hiding and yells, “Boo!”
I’d call such a death natural because mischievous kids are part of the wear and tear of ordinary life.
Between the extremes are more complicated cases:
A frail old man quarreled with a friend over living arrangements. The friend stomped out and inadvertently slammed the door on the old man’s hand, causing a painful bruise. A neighbor called 911. The injured man collapsed while describing events to the police. When a fire alarm sounded, a man with congestive heart failure ran to escape from what he thought was a burning building. He collapsed in front of responding firefighters, who found that somebody pulled the fire alarm as a prank.A woman who saw a gang fight outside her window collapsed and died while phoning the police.None of these fear-inducing events was as innocuous as a kid yelling “boo,” but no victim’s death was intended, and nobody foresaw the possibility. I doubt that murder or manslaughter charges would stick in any of the cases, but most medical examiners think legal charges are irrelevant to their manner-of-death classifications.
A colleague whose intellect and judgment I particularly admire has a system for classifying deaths by fright:
If you think fright caused death and believe intent to harm or kill is necessary for a homicide determination, it’s an accident.If you think fright caused death and believe that only the intent to commit the frightening act is necessary for a homicide determination, it’s a homicide.If you think the timing of the death was a coincidence, it’s a natural.In lots of cases, a medical examiner could reasonably defend any of those certifications. We don’t have firm rules – just individual philosophies that sometimes differ.
Dr. Carol J. Huser, a forensic pathologist, served as La Plata County coroner from 2003 to 2012. She now lives in Florida and Maryland. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.