Was Ronald Opus murdered, or did he commit suicide? This story, invented by Don Harper Mills, explores the logic of assigning guilt under unusual circumstances.
Ronald Opus jumped off the top of a building in a suicide attempt. His fall was interrupted by a shotgun blast to the back of his head, fired from a ninth-story window. His body fell into a safety net that had been erected below the eighth floor, unbeknownst to Opus or the occupants of the ninth-floor apartment.
The medical examiner was unsure how to classify the death. Normally if a person intends to commit suicide and his actions cause his death, it is a suicide even if the death does not take place in the way the person expected. However, in this case, if not for the shotgun blast, Opus would have survived the fall unharmed. Therefore, the medical examiner believed that the death might be a homicide.
A police investigation revealed that the shotgun had been fired by an old man who lived with his wife in the ninth-floor apartment. Angry at his wife, he aimed the shotgun at her and pulled the trigger. The shot missed the wife and hit Ronald Opus as he fell outside their window. Normally, when a person intends to kill one human being and by his action kills another human being accidentally, the charge is murder.
However, both the husband and wife maintained that they both believed the shotgun to be unloaded. They said that they always kept it unloaded and that the old man was in the habit of threatening his wife with an unloaded shotgun during their often heated arguments. This evidence tended to point toward the killing of Opus being ruled an accidental death.
Further investigation revealed that the shotgun had been loaded by the couple’s adult son, who was angry at his mother for cutting off monetary support. The man knew that his father often pointed the unloaded shotgun at his mother, and he loaded the firearm in hopes that she would be killed. When that failed to happen after several months, the man, Ronald Opus, depressed by his financial situation and the failure of his murder plot, threw himself off the top of the building.
The death was ruled a suicide.