The Ultimate Thinking Puzzle

Remember those annoying thought experiments? These tricky logic puzzles usually involve things like melted ice, power outages, Siamese twins, and faulty parachutes. You’re supposed to explicate a situation given the barest of details (such as "A man is dead in an empty room and there’s water on the ground, what happened?"), while essential clues, which are usually omitted ("he stabbed himself with an icicle"), must be extracted with yes/no questions.

The next time someone pulls one of these on you, counter them with the following thought experiment, created by Don Harper Mills, past president of the American Association for Forensic Sciences.


A man jumps off a building and dies. The medical examiner rules the death a suicide. Explain why and how she reached this decision.


The medical examiner viewed the body of Ronald Opus and concluded that he died from a shotgun wound to the head. The decedent had jumped from the top of a ten-story building intending to commit suicide (he left a note indicating his despondency). As he fell past the ninth floor, his life was interrupted by a shotgun blast through a window, which killed him instantly.

Ordinarily, a person who sets out to commit suicide ultimately succeeds, even though the mechanism might not be what he intended. That Opus was shot on the way to certain death nine stories below probably would not have changed his mode of death from suicide to homicide. But the fact that his suicidal intent would not have been successful caused the medical examiner to feel that he had a homicide on her hands: neither the shooter nor the decedent was aware that a safety net had been erected at the eighth floor level to protect some window washers, and that Opus would not have been able to complete his suicide because of this.

The room on the ninth floor whence the shotgun blast emanated was occupied by an elderly man and his wife. They were arguing and he was threatening her with the shotgun. He was so upset that, when he pulled the trigger, he completely missed his wife and pellets went through the window, striking Opus. When one intends to kill Person A but kills Person B in the attempt, one is guilty of the murder of Person B. When confronted with this charge, the old man and his wife were both adamant that neither knew that the shotgun was loaded. The old man said it was his long standing habit to threaten his wife with the unloaded shotgun. He had no intention to murder her - therefore, the killing of Opus appeared to be an accident. That is, the gun had been accidentally loaded.

The continuing investigation turned up a witness who saw the old couple’s son loading the shotgun approximately six weeks prior to the fatal incident. It transpired that the old lady had cut off her son’s financial support and the son, knowing the propensity of his father to use the shotgun threateningly, loaded the gun with the expectation that his father would shoot his mother. The case now becomes one of murder on the part of the son for the death of Ronald Opus.

The son, however, was not available for questioning. He had become increasingly despondent over the failure of his attempt to engineer his mother’s murder, leading him to jump off the ten-story building, only to be killed by a shotgun blast through a ninth story window: the son was none other than Ronald Opus himself. The medical examiner therefore closed the case as a suicide.

Created, maintained and © by John Hubbard (write to me). Disclaimers. Hosted by Dreamhost. Last modified: July-23-2003.