Over the past few days, questions about the death of sex offender and disgraced financier Jeffrey Epstein made their way back into headlines. Epstein allegedly committed suicide in a New York prison on August 10 while he awaited trial on federal sex-trafficking charges involving minors. He’s been tied to international royalty, celebrities and a wide range of politicians including both Donald Trump and Bill Clinton, which has led many to speculate that his death wasn’t a suicide. Some believe Epstein was going to divulge incriminating details about high-profile government officials and therefore was murdered.
Several factors have contributed to calls for an investigation into Epstein’s death— ‘unusable’ surveillance footage from in front of his cell, guards that fell asleep during the time he died and the fact that he was taken off of suicide watch shortly before being found dead. However, the most compelling piece of evidence thus far has been remarks from Dr. Michael Baden, a former medical examiner and highly regarded forensic pathologist who examined Epstein’s body.
Baden was hired by the Epstein family to look into Jeffrey’s cause of death, and he says his findings were troubling. Specifically, Baden pointed to fractures on Epstein’s thyroid cartilage and hyoid bone as suspicious. According to Baden, those types of injuries are, “extremely unusual in suicidal hangings and could occur much more commonly in homicidal strangulation.”
That contradicts what current New York City medical examiner Barbara Sampson found earlier this year. Her office ruled the death a suicide and she has stood by that decision saying,
“We stand by that determination. We continue to share information around the medical investigation with Mr. Epstein’s family, their representatives, and their pathology consultant. The original medical investigation was thorough and complete. There is no reason for a second medical investigation by our office.”
So is a fractured hyoid bone an indicator of homicide?
Dr. Jeffrey Jentzen, Forensic Pathology Professor and Autopsy and Forensic Services Director at the University of Michigan says those injuries could suggest homicide, but that he doesn’t have enough specific information about the injuries themselves to draw an accurate conclusion.
“One of the telltale signs is whether there’s hemorrhage around the fracture or not. Typically in a suspended hanging there would not be hemorrhage around the fracture because the person would have died before the fracture occurred […] So we look for the presence of a fracture, and we look for the presence of hemorrhage around it to see if it is indeed a fracture that occurred before death.”
He also said the exact location of Epstein’s fracture could also play a role in determining whether it suggests suicide or homicide. Jentzen said a fracture over the anterior of the hyoid bone itself would be uncommon in a suspension-type hanging.
Dr. Thomas A. Sporn, an Associate Professor of Pathology at Duke University, agreed that a hyoid fracture is uncommon in a hanging suicide. He said that in this type of suicide, “the presence of the ligature around the neck doesn’t cause any trauma to the muscles in your neck and it certainly doesn’t cause any trauma to the bones and the skeleton of the larynx.”
He said, “It takes a tremendous amount of force to fracture [the hyoid bone].” In his experience performing autopsies on hanging suicide victims, he’s never seen that type of fracture. Sporn has also autopsied a large number of manual strangulation victims and in those cases, hyoid bone fractures are very common. Those types of fractures, he says, “speak to the presence of someone’s thumb and fingers in the neck of the victim.”
He said Baden’s mention of hemorrhaging in Epstein’s face and eyes suggests manual strangulation as well.
Sporn also agreed that without seeing the injuries himself, he couldn’t draw an accurate conclusion about Epstein’s cause of death. However, he did say that if Baden did actually see this pattern of injuries, “it would be shocking that a board-certified forensic pathologist would call it death by hanging.”
This article was edited by Samburaj Das.