There are plenty of conspiracy theories floating around out there claiming political opponents murdered Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to open up a seat on the court. Radio talk show host Alex Jones, never one to pass up an opportunity to stir the pot, said he feels this happened “in his gut.”
Well, fine. It’s a madcap scheme that comes from the pages of terrible pulp political thrillers, but let’s go there anyway. We can follow Jones’ batshit theory and use it to learn something about murder and forensics.
The absence of an autopsy will stoke the fires of conspiracy, but they may be doused later this week when a statement from Scalia’s doctor will be added to his death certificate. The 79-year-old jurist suffered from several chronic conditions, The Washington Post reported.
Also intriguing to theorists: The U.S. Marshal said that Scalia had declined any security at the ranch. This opens up a host of possible, if extremely long-shot, murder scenarios where an interloper arrives at the ranch and escapes unseen.
Scalia was not a young man. He was 79 years old and friends at the West Texas ranch where he died say he went to bed early because he didn’t feel well. There are many natural causes of death that could be responsible. A heart attack seems to be the most probable cause, and local media are reporting that his death certificate will read “myocardial infarction.” Other media reports say the cause will be deemed natural. Either way, no official is suggesting homicide.
Let’s not let that stop us from conjecture. Besides, there are also a few man-made ways to kill him that would fit the very thin facts — some of which would be hard to prove even if examiners conducted an autopsy.
Many conspiracy-minded people are pointing to a small detail to throw some suspicion over Scalia’s death: a pillow found over his head. So could someone have entered his room and used that pillow to asphyxiate him? This method only really works with really old or young people, or those already unconscious. There are usually telltale signs of these murders — not only will most victims struggle, leaving signs of the fight behind, but the suffocation takes up to 5 minutes and the body shows this with hemorrhages under the skin. But there’s a catch: Sometimes the suffocation triggers a heart attack, leaving the corpse without many of the signs of a homicide.
Even a close examination can miss this cause of death. “Homicidal smothering is extremely difficult to detect,” reads one book on forensic pathology written by Dinesh Rao. “The autopsy may reveal asphyxia, but there may not be any corroborative medical evidence to prove foul play.”
Assassination by poison is an ancient art form. It’s also a good way to kill people without getting caught. Let’s say you’re the professional killer hired by — oh, let’s just go the whole way and blame this on the White House. They might ask how you plan on doing this.
“Well,” the killer would respond, “I’m a trained nurse and I’m a big fan of this muscle relaxant called succinylcholine. It’s the stuff we inject into patients when we want to jam breathing tubes down their throats while they’re still awake. But get this: In high enough doses, it paralyses people so they can’t breath. Most autopsies show this as a heart attack. It’s brilliant.” The White House aide smiles. “Then let’s take out that SOB."
Sound far-fetched? Well, sure. But a similar scheme killed Nevada State Controller Kathy Augustine when her husband injected her with succinylcholine. The hubby was nabbed when coworkers reported that he was pondering ways to kill her, and looked more closely at her body. They found a small needle mark.
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The drug doesn’t leave any direct traces, but it breaks down and leave metabolites behind that can indicate a poisoning. But the medical examiner has to be looking for those signs to catch them during an autopsy.
The paranoid can also ponder whether Scalia could have been killed with a gas. One easy choice would be to use carbon monoxide poisoning, undetectable by smell or color. There have been cases where a murderer has run a hose from the tailpipe of a car into a room where the victim is sleeping. (A doctor in Ohio named Mark Wangler did this in 2006 and got caught, mostly because his claim that the victim had a seizure was proven false. Prosecutors showed that she was dead when the call was made.) All a hired killer would need is a commercially available canister of carbon monoxide and a hose.
There’s a catch, though. There are usually telltale signs when a person is killed by CO. There may be froth at the mouth and nose. (The kind of evidence absorbed by a pillow perhaps?) The skin and internal organs can become bright red, almost like a stain. It’s unlikely that such clues would be ignored by an M.E.
Then again, Scalia’s family was insistent on not performing an autopsy. That alone will keep this theory — and many, many others — in people’s minds for a long time.