An Interview With Dr. Scheinin, Who Performed Elliott Smith’s Autopsy.

This has been a strange day, going through questions about an event that happened more than 7 years ago, and meeting a woman, Dr.Lisa  Scheinin (above, the only picture we could find), who performed Elliott Smith’s autopsy.

I meet her at the Department of Coroner around 2 pm as it was decided and we go into a little room to discuss about her results.

After a short introduction, she wants to know if I was a relative or a friend, I explain briefly my intention, no more than a few seconds because my time was counted as the Coroner was charging the copious amount of $300.6 per hour! I say to her that we are a few people trying to close the case, making an allusion to the possible Dantesque task this may be, but she does not react a bit.

As soon as I meet her, Dr. Lisa Scheinin is telling me she is not cashing the money, without me asking anything about it. She seems to be that kind of person, clearing things up right away…. But she says she does not want to be recorded, she looks a little nervous.
We sit down and I ask her the first question about the stab wounds, if their directions were more consistent with suicide or murder?
She says ‘either way’, there is no way to tell, since with that location he could have done it to himself, and the two stabs were very close to themselves.

I ask her about the numbers of the wounds, she says it is arbitrary as there is no way to know if the 2nd stabbing really occurred after the 1st one, but both were potentially fatal because they penetrated the chest cavity, although only the so-called 2nd one penetrated the heart.

I was curious about the depth of that 2nd wound, between 5-7 inches, and its compatibility with a suicide, but she does not seem surprised by it, as she says the hardest part is to cut the skin, but once it’s done, there is little resistance.

There was something related to this 2nd wound that was a little confusing in the autopsy, saying the posterior wall defect appeared to have been sutured twice, but she is formal, there were only 2 wounds, and the vague reference to a 3rd wound, because of these two sets of sutures, is not justified. There is no evidence either there was a second insertion in the same wound, as if the knife had been removed and plunged it again.

But most important are the 2 wounds possibly interpreted as two ‘defensive’ wounds, but when I used that term, Dr. Scheinin cannot see the quotation marks and she reacts right away. I know it was a term she used as a possible interpretation but she doesn’t want to affirm these wounds were indeed of defensive nature.

I ask her if they were fresh, and she answers yes without hesitation. And then I have to go through a little bit of explanation regarding these wounds: they have been dismissed as defensive wounds by J. Chiba and R. Peringer, as they went through a great deal of explanation, in the 1994 Spin article for example, about Elliott’s cutting habit and his self-mutilation behavior.

But Dr. Scheinin is direct, these wounds are not compatible with self-mutilation, ‘it’s not self-cutting’. I had always thought it was the case as the one under the right arm is a pretty weird location for that kind of behavior. She also thinks these wounds are not consistent with hesitation marks, which are usually around the stab wounds. In this case, once again she is formal, there were no hesitation marks, and it is pretty unusual, she will repeat this several times

However, she does not exclude some cutting by accident, Elliott may have mishandled the knife, and he may have hurt himself that way.

I go back to the Spin article again, and in particular to R. Peringer declaring ‘He had three really tremendous knife wounds on his left arm. They were deep, like he had to go across a couple of times or have the sharpest, biggest knife to do it.’ Since J. Chiba is saying she was coming back from seeing the movie ‘Lost in Translation’ (released October 3rd 2003), these cuts were necessarily inflicted after this date. I ask Dr. Scheinin if she had noticed something like this, and she says she noticed at least 2 on his left arm, but they looked well healed. She adds that it is difficult for her to say how big and deep they were, and that it usually takes several months for things like this to heal.
But she adds that cutters do it superficially, and the ‘tremendous’ part could be due to an emotional reaction to a tragic death, as when people say that there is blood everywhere when there are only a few drops.

She thinks Elliott was harming himself, but not in a typical or classical cutter way, and she is the one who comes up first with the ovoid marks on his left arm indicated on the autopsy. I say that J. Chiba mentioned them in the Spin article to reinforce her self-cutting agenda, whereas these marks were present a long time ago (I have pictures to prove it). Furthermore I have met a guy who was recording with Elliott in 2001 and who told me that Elliott was taking a lot of drugs at that time, had hallucinations, and had burnt himself with a cigarette, trying to chase insects and worms crawling on his arm.

Dr. Scheinin seems not decided to give any opinion about this, she simply says that, yes, people who take drugs hallucinate, and this is possible.

Talking again about a picture I took in August 2003, just 3 months before his death, and showing his arms cut free, I ask her if it is possible to determine when some cuts have been inflicted, to what she answers there is no way to know.

I am also curious about the blood, if he had blood on his hands, on his body, how much blood, and if it is possible to determine if a person is holding a knife because of some blood pattern. The problem is that the body had been washed when she did the autopsy, so none of these questions can be answered. She also thinks it is not possible to determine if someone is holding a knife by observing the blood pattern on the hand.

I come up with another interview of Robin Peringer in the 2008 Filter magazine describing the  ‘cleaning up the blood throughout Elliott’s house after the suicide’, and asks her if it is usually the case, if people who commit suicide run throughout the house, and she says it is still possible to walk around a little bit when stabbed, and in Elliott’s case, there was no physical injury that may have prevented him from walking. Even people who get shot may be able to walk, it all depends.

In the police report, it is reported that J. Chiba ‘pulled the knife out of the decedent’s chest and saw ‘two cuts’ on his chest’, and I have always wondered how she may have been able to determine there were two cuts with all the blood probably dripping out, and with his clothes on. But Dr. Scheinin is not that surprised, saying Chiba may have seen two holes in his shirt, or that may be there was a delay with the blood coming out when she removed the knife.

I also ask her if she noticed anything, beside the two possible defensive wounds, that would have suggested a struggle, and she simply answers no.

I almost end up by asking her how many suicide by stabbing she is aware of with no hesitation marks, no removal of the clothes, two deep wounds, done in the middle of a fight, and done sober (no drugs, no alcohol), and one point makes her react…. Dr Scheinin corrects me, they were not in the middle of a fight, they had fought and she had locked herself in the bathroom….
But she pursues saying that it is not a common form of suicide, but not impossible, that many aspects in this case were atypical, like the non-removal of the clothes, but that some people ‘go against the grain’.

Someone told me off records she had said her gut feeling was going toward a suicide, and I ask her about this. She does not remember being interviewed by this person, but she has done many interviews, and no, she does not want to say this, she wants to stay in the middle, with no display of personal gut feeling…. One thing that she mentions, the suicide note, there was one, so that would prove something, but once again it was ‘nebulous’ as she says, ‘it didn’t say anything, you had to read into it’, it could have been a suicide note, she doesn’t know,… like for so many things, she doesn’t want to decide one way or another.

This interview did not bring any answers, not that I was expecting some, but it cleared up a few things:
– The possible defensive wounds were fresh and not compatible with self mutilation or hesitation, however they could have been the result of an accident before the actual stabbing, that’s why J. Chiba and R. Peringer pushing the cutting agenda several times is curious.
– The three tremendous wounds described by Peringer and done in early October 2003, were fully healed, so either he exaggerated them, or those observed by Scheinin were older ones, already fully healed, and Peringer and Chiba lied.
-Elliott’s case gathers all the atypical aspects of a suicide case.

Dr Scheinin said to me she never talked to the family, and she is not aware of any other reports mentioned to me by detective Morris. She seemed uneasy during our conversation, as if she thought I was going to bring up a ‘gotcha’ moment. But what gotcha could I have come up with? She is the one who did the autopsy, she is the one who knows.

Still, when leaving the room, she said, relieved, ‘That was easy!’ I felt bad about this sentence, as if I haven’t been bold or aggressive enough? I was not there to accuse her of anything, I was there to get the truth.

Originally published on Rock NYC (April 28 2011)


3 Comments Add yours

  1. yasmin says:

    This is probably the most important article of all, everyone should read it and spread it.


  2. Billy Navidson says:

    The fact that Chiba was never a suspect is flat out ridiculous. When I say ridiculous, I literally mean worthy of ridicule. She took the knife out of him despite having first aid training. They had been fighting. In any ordinary case with the same circumstances, the girlfriend would have been the #1 suspect. It seems investigators to this case were lazy due to Elliott’s notorious melancholy, or someone is intentionally trying to cover things up.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Gabriel says:

    Here comes the flood…

    There are a couple of assumptions that can be made about the status of this case.

    We can all agree that it is inactive. But, according to another journalist who has close ties to the LAPD, the inconclusive determination by the LA Coroner did much to create the state of limbo. A crime was never officially established, making it difficult from the beginning. That doesn’t mean Elliott didn’t warrant an investigation. It’s more a consequence of the way our criminal justice system functions. No crime… still, the LAPD’s Robbery-Homicide Division opened a case. They didn’t have to do so.

    So, that familiar refrain the “the decided” sing to the “conspiracy theorists” – that the case was opened on a “technicality” – can be interpreted in a couple of ways. Perhaps the police made use of the “technicality”. It didn’t necessarily mean that the LAPD were just being fair – even to a junkie musician (as they might have implied) – or that they are hiding mistakes by invoking an open investigation. Maybe they don’t allow open access to their evidence because whatever it is that they have can’t stand on its own and they don’t want to contaminate things further by showing their hand. I’m sure we can name plenty of cases where there wasn’t enough evidence to put away a perpetrator who was eventually convicted for his or her crimes. Unfortunately, there are thousands more cases that remain cold where a suspect will never be arrested.

    No matter what the detectives think (or, whom they consider an unofficial suspect), without the full backing of a homicide determination, investigators have a tougher time convincing a DA that there is reason to proceed with an arrest. Making an arrest on a hunch can be detrimental. A coroner’s opinion (even though it is just that) is the cornerstone of a homicide investigation. If detectives move on their own and arrest someone, they better have evidence that will hold up in court. Otherwise they’ll risk losing their perpetrator and maybe even their jobs/ranks, not to mention a potential lawsuit.

    There’s only one witness to the event, and she has been in full control of the recorded narrative surrounding this case. At this juncture, since no crime has ever been established, she can continue to influence perceptions by presenting whatever narrative she wants – cohesive or not. We’ll still have our opinions.

    Opinions – the autopsy report itself is an opinion. An interpretation made by a professional who is giving a “read” based on experience and the analysis of wounds as they correlate to medicolegal data and the circumstances surrounding a death. The interpretation of sharp force injuries is not an exact science. Medicolegally, stab wounds of a horizontal nature are considered to be more consistent with self-infliction, whereas vertical wounds, statistically speaking, are usually considered to be the result of another’s hand. ES’ wounds were oblique. So, yes – ambiguous – associated with homicide or suicide (with a more frequent appearance in the homicide category depending on what kind of read there is on the trajectory). Yep, the “consistent with self-infliction” part of the coroner’s opinion of ES’ stab wounds really only means that he – Elliott – could reach the area of injury himself.

    Unfortunately, we citizens might see things differently, but the LAPD, generally speaking, lack the manpower and autonomy to do as they please when it comes to investigating every case that comes their way. Multiply this particular conundrum of a case by a thousand more and divide the workload by a handful of detectives. It’s pretty commonplace for them to see suspects get away with murder even when cases are obvious homicides. And not because they don’t have doubts about statements and/or the integrity of some witnesses. There’s a lot of legal territory between compiling evidence and making an arrest. Without conclusive evidence or a confession, they’ll be hard-pressed to close this one. Especially when the manner of death currently stands as “undetermined”. “Beyond a reasonable doubt” is not an easy metric.

    But – it is easy for people to draw their conclusions from reading the ES’ cartoon (the “melancholy-tortured-genius”) into the circumstances. People don’t really know the details about the case or those involved. To be fair, how could they? There has been so much conflation and erroneous information about ES in the press, from the beginning of his career through to the commentary on his death, that the broad strokes – that “stickman” – has come to replace the quixotic, complicated “Elliott Smith” in most minds. And, really, Elliott himself never corrected some of the presumptuous, sound-bite oriented press that misrepresented his statements. He was fed up with having to do so. (That’s why a lot of famous folks don’t “do” interviews.)

    Then there’s the silence.

    Except for those few who seem more bent on serving a personal agenda, not much had been researched and analyzed in a public forum until Rock NYC decided to do what they could to examine the circumstances surrounding this case more closely. In my opinion, the highly touted SPIN article written by Liam Gowing that usually gets the attention (from 2004) was extremely myopic. I’m sure Gowing tried to remain objective, but he had a personal connection to those involved as well as personal experiences that might have colored his lens.

    Case in point: the cliff jumping story in his article should’ve been debunked before it made it to print. Instead it came to confirm for the uninformed public the veracity of the witness’ description of Elliott’s suicidal tendencies. Gowing interviewed Jennifer Chiba. Chiba should/would have known Elliott never jumped off of a cliff. Misrepresentation, oversight — or calculated decision? On whose part? I’m sure there had to have been some conversation about it between ES and Chiba at least once – if for no other reason than professional curiosity. After all, she was a therapist; not to mention a “friend” in close quarters. Chiba should/would have been familiar with what had actually transpired the night of the alleged “cliff jump” after the fact. She could have asked Gowing to make a correction.

    It all makes one wonder.

    Independent investigations/research can sometimes yield pertinent information that jumpstarts official investigations. I hope that is the outcome with this case.

    Thanks, Alyson, for sharing your work.


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