Volume 49, Issue 3 (May 2004)
“Homicide by Heart Attack” Revisited
The sudden death of a person caused by an arrhythmia that is induced by physical and/or emotional stress provoked by the criminal activity of another person is sometimes referred to as “homicide by heart attack.” Published criteria for such an event relate to situations where no physical contact occurs between the perpetrator and the victim. Situations involving physical contact, but with absence of lethal injuries, are frequently treated in a similar fashion by forensic pathologists. Herein, we propose a set of modified criteria, which include cases where physical contact has occurred. Five examples of so-called “homicide by heart attack” are presented, including a 40-year-old man who was struck in the head with a wooden statue, a 74-year-old man who was punched in the jaw by a robber, a 66-year-old woman who was startled awake by a home-intruder, a 67-year-old woman who struggled with a would-be purse-snatcher in a parking lot, and a 52-year-old man who was in a physical altercation with a younger man. In each instance, autopsy revealed the presence of severe, underlying heart disease, as well as absence of lethal injuries. In each case, investigative information was such that the emotional and/or physical stress associated with the criminal activity of another individual was deemed contributory to the death. The presumed mechanism of death in each case was a cardiac dysrhythmia related to underlying heart disease, but initiated by the emotional and/or physical stress.