Academic Forensic Pathology

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Title: Suicide by Hypothermia: A Report of Two Cases and 23-Year Retrospective Review
Author(s): Wilcoxon RebeccaJackson LorrenBaker Andrew M.
Citation: Acad Forensic Pathol. 2015 Sep; 5(3):462-475.
Type: Invited Review
Keywords: Forensic pathology, Suicide, Hypothermia, Environmental cold exposure
Abstract: Hypothermia deaths are frequently accidental and associated with impairment by alcohol, injuries, mental illness, or natural disease. Hypothermia as a method of suicide is unusual, with only nine case reports in the scientific literature. In the early months of 2014, during one of the coldest winters on record, the Hennepin County Medical Examiner's office investigated and certified two unrelated cases of suicide by hypothermia; we describe the salient features of these cases. A retrospective review of all cases investigated by our office from January 1991-April 2014 identified 146 cases in which "hypothermia" or "environmental cold exposure" was listed as a cause of death, contributing condition, or mechanism of injury. Death investigation narratives and autopsy reports were reviewed to confirm hypothermia and evaluate for the presence or absence of characteristic hypothermia findings. In these cases the manner of death was certified as follows: 116 accident (79.4%), 15 undetermined (10.3%), 8 suicide (5.5%), 6 natural (4.1%), and 1 homicide (0.7%). Further examination of the eight suicide cases revealed that half were female and half were male, and most were younger individuals with only one decedent above 50 years of age. Four of these deaths were associated with drug toxicities, five were associated with additional self-inflicted injuries (blunt force, sharp force, and/or gunshot wounds), and none of them exhibited paradoxical undressing. It is important for medicolegal death investigation professionals to recognize that, while rare, hypothermia deaths may represent intentional injury, and suicide as a manner of death should be considered in all cases.
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