Is It Even Reasonable To Consider Elliott Smith’s Death A Suicide?

Nothing in this post is new information, but it’s always good to summarize the facts in one single article. Here are once again the details of the autopsy (and only the cold facts) examined at the light of statistics taken from forensic literature.
On October 21st, 2003, singer-songwriter Elliott Smith died in the Echo Park house he was sharing with his girlfriend Jennifer Chiba. Elliott, an acclaimed singer-songwriter, had released 5 full-length albums but was mostly known for his contribution to the soundtrack of the Gus Van Sant movie, ‘Good Will Hunting’ and his song ‘’Miss Misery’ for which he was nominated for an Oscar in 1997. After a 911 call placed by Chiba at 12:18, Elliott was transported to the hospital where he was admitted at 13:10 with two stab wounds to the chest, but despite medical intervention to repair the heart lacerations, he was pronounced dead at 13:36. The immediate cause of death was stated as ‘exsanguination’ (massive blood loss).The press and media outlets announced that Elliott died of an apparent suicide, based on the narration of Jennifer Chiba, who stated to the police that Elliott had suffered from depression all of his life, had a history of alcohol abuse and multiple narcotics addiction (including heroin and crack). According to the police report, she also mentioned a previous suicide attempt, as well as a consistent history of verbal suicidal ideations and planningLet’s go back to October 21, 2003, a very hot day with temperatures in the 90s and winds so dry there were high risks of wildfires in the following days. Around noon, Elliott Smith allegedly stabbed himself in the chest, twice, following a well-documented fight with his girlfriend Jennifer Chiba (she admitted this part to the police and neighbors confirmed it).Based on the results of the autopsy report, the manner of death ‘could not be determined’, leaving the real cause of death a big question mark.

But can people actually stab themselves in the chest,.. twice?

There is a quite abundant forensic literature on the subject of stabbing, but, just to be clear, most stabbing deaths are homicides: according to a study which considered 700 cutting and stabbing fatalities (and keep in mind that this also includes death by cutting not stabbing) 80% were due to homicide, and only 18% to suicide, while the rest, 2 %, was due to accident.

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, a knife is the second weapon used after firearm: 16.5% of all murders are caused by knives versus 64% by firearm. But when people murder their boyfriend or girlfriend, the statistics are even more revealing as 32.8% of offenders used a knife to murder their partner, while 47.2% used a firearm. These are just statistics but a knife is definitively a common weapon used during domestic violence. In a recent article in the SF Weekly, emergency domestic violence calls involving a gun went up 53 % and calls involving a knife increased 87 % last year. Let’s keep in mind that knives are commonly used in case of domestic violence and Elliott and his girlfriend had been fighting that day, she admitted it to the police and neighbors heard the screaming

If we examine the possibility of suicide by stabbing, there are a few points to consider:

– Suicides by stabbing do exist but they are very rare:  According to many studies, suicide by sharp force injuries account for less than 2% of all suicides, so the choice of a knife or any other sharp instrument to commit suicide is unusual. Furthermore, many studies say that the most common sites for self-inflicted incised wounds are the neck and the abdomen, not the chest. So there are actually far less than 2% of people who commit suicide by stabbing themselves in the chest. Plus, the thorax is the most targeted region for homicide victims whereas suicides by cutting mostly target and the upper limbs, the neck or the wrists

– The time of the day: This happened in the middle of the day, whereas studies reveal that most of the self-inflicted stabbings (69%) occurred at night or in the early hours of the morning, and very few self-stabbings are actually witnessed by someone else. It is obviously a very dramatic scene to witness which could have traumatized her for life or made her look guilty. Did Elliott want to do that to her?

– Sternum and ribs injuries: According to a large study including 118 sharp force fatalities, there is a much higher likelihood of a homicide if bone or cartilage wounds are found (they were found in 74.3% of the cases) and a higher likelihood of a suicide if these wounds are absent (they were only found in 14.6% of the cases). Suicide victims tend to avoid solid anatomical structures, such as ribs and sternum whereas the frequency of bone or cartilage wounds in homicides is high because assailants ignore the presence of bones. In Elliott’s case, stab wound #1 injured intercostal space, and stab wound #2 ‘perforated the left edge of the sternum’. Elliott’s perforated sternum speaks volume.

– The depth of the wounds: Wounds caused by assailants to their victims are generally more severe than those self-inflicted. On the autopsy report, the estimated depth of penetration of Elliott’s wound #2 is between 5 and 7 inch (12.7 -17.8 cm) which is quite severe.

– The clothes: Elliott was stabbed with his clothes on, and this is very significant once again as studies show that clothing damage is relatively rare in case of suicide (between 4% to 39% depending on the studies) whereas the stabbing is made through clothing in most homicides. In the case of suicides, the person generally exposes the chosen area before the stabbing and there is no clothing damage.

– The lack of hesitation wounds: When a person stabs itself, hesitation wounds (superficial incised wounds) are often made before the fatal deep wound. They indicate indecision before the final act. Elliott didn’t have any hesitation wounds around the large stab wounds in his chest and his neck and wrists were intact. According to many studies, hesitation marks are a strong indicator of suicide, they are present in most cases of suicides (>70%) and are even believed to be the most useful indication in distinguishing suicide from homicide.

– The possible defense wounds: Elliott had small cuts on his left palm and right upper arm, which could be interpreted as possible defense wounds. They were very small, but according to the doctor who did the autopsy, they could have also been done when mishandling the knife but they were certainly not due to intentional self-harm. Since Elliott was right-handed, the cut on his right arm is weird. Obviously, defense wounds are a strong indication of homicide and were detected in 61% of the cases in a large study. They are most frequently found on hands, arms, and forearms.

To sum this up with the strongest points:

Suicide by stabbing only represents 2% of all suicides

Bone injuries are only found in 14.6% of the cases

Clothing damage is only found in 39% of the cases at the most

The absence of hesitation marks represents less than 30% of the cases

For what it’s worth, if we consider all these statistics which characterize Elliott’s case altogether, we can do this simple calculation:

0.02 x 0.146 x 0.39 x 0.30 = 0.0003, so 0.03 %… Elliott’s case would represent this astronomically low statistic  (0.03%)… is it even possible?

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3 Comments Add yours

  1. The whole thing reminds me of Sid and Nancy in some way. I doubt anyone will ever know the whole truth since Chiba is less than reliable with regard to the truth. Interestingly, very likely had she been a man, as Sid was, she would have at least been detained for a while in a police office.
    Chiba seems like a manipulative and needy person who pushed ES to the brink, at a time where he wasn’t doing his usual self-medicating to let her behavior slide, and didn’t have the coping skills/strength to tell her to fuck off and walk away from their life together yet either. She probably never thought he’d do something like that to himself, but maybe they both did brinkmanship as part of their way of relating to one another and in that sense, what happened to him was an impulsive act for him to one-up her. I’ve met women like her and men like him in that way. Stuff that happens in those kinds of relationships is a kind of hell that no one in their right mind with some kind of self-preservation instinct, empathy, and respect for themselves would tolerate.
    It’s incredibly tragic but I’m so very grateful for the beautiful, truthful and painful legacy of music that Elliott Smith left the world. Rather than keep wondering on the mystery of his death as time keeps passing and passing, I honestly feel that our focus should be on helping those who are close to us who are self-medicating to hide an underlying, unbearable pain, to hold them close and help them see those skeletons in the light of day for what they are, help them make peace with the fact that they shaped their lives and that they also don’t have to haunt them forever, and that in these struggles they are NOT alone. And in particular, to also keep a focus on men as well as women who have these issues, because men approach coping in such a black and white, hard and unforgiving toward themselves way, and this leads them to violence, whether toward others or toward themselves, or both. We need to help the Elliott Smiths of the world, take them seriously, coax them to health and strength, and witness them shine more and more. Because we love them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. alysoncamus says:

      Yes, but it was never proven he did this to himself, there are actually good reasons to consider he didn’t

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Well if it can be proven that he was actually murdered, I do hope that he will finally get justice. I just don’t feel that strongly that we’ll ever know the truth. In the meanwhile, his music speaks volumes about what happens to children who experience trauma like he did who aren’t treated – or who are treated by people who are ill-equipped to help them. Ironically Chiba is an art therapist who dealt with such children, but wow had serious substance addiction problems too and seems to have severe personal issues of her own that get in the way of empathy. The blind leading the blind! That outcome can never be good. … But I wish you well in your search to find the truth, and I will be following you.

        Liked by 1 person

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